From a distance, it would seem as if "The Lovely Bones" has all the right elements as a prestige project destined for major accolades. It is based on the acclaimed best-selling novel by Alice Sebold. It is directed by Peter Jackson, he of "The Lord of the Rings
" trilogy and 2005's "King Kong
" remake. The cast is filled with a number of heavy-hitters, many of them former Oscar winners and nominees. The scope of the narrative is large, and its visual effects are beyond lavish. The release date is scheduled for the end of the year, just in time for awards recognition. What could go wrong? More than can be imagined. Before "The Lovely Bones" was adapted into a feature, some readers of the source material claimed it to be virtually unfilmable. Whether it is or isn't, those skeptics will at least be proven correct in their doubts by a finished product that, following a devastatingly beautiful first act, goes downhill in unfathomably fatal ways. Was the script by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson in rough shape when shooting commenced, or was the film destroyed in post-production with an editing hack job? Did Jackson misread the book and its meaning, or was he so in love with his flashy CGI magic that he lost all sight of the story's poignancy and humanity? Whatever the case, "The Lovely Bones" is a startling mess of near-epic proportions, one of the year's very biggest disappointments.
In the quiet suburbs of Norristown, Pennsylvania, circa December 1973, lurks a neighborhood man named George Harvey (Stanley Tucci). Friendly but mostly keeping to himself, he builds intricate dollhouses in his spare time while plotting his latest young victim. He is, indeed, a rapist and a murderer, and his newest target is unassuming 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan). Too busy crushing on a classmate she likes, Ray Singh (Reece Ritchie), dreaming of her first kiss, and planning her future career in wildlife photography, Susie describes in voiceover how she simply didn't have time to notice the danger right in front of her until it was too late. Now murdered, Susie exists in the mystical, ever-evolving In-Between, looking down on her family and acquaintances as they try to reconcile her mysterious disappearance and presumed death. As father Jack (Mark Wahlberg) and younger sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) become infatuated with finding her killer and colorful Grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon) moves in to help out around the house after distraught mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz) picks up and leaves the family to work in the fields of a California winery, Susie is reluctant to cross over to Heaven until the crimes against her are brought to justice.
The opening half-hour of "The Lovely Bones" is marvelous, a collection of random memories within young Susie Salmon's life as she, her surroundings, and her relationships with her family and friends are introduced. It all rings very true, as do the exquisite, detailed production design and costumes, taking one straight back to the '70s without an ounce of knowing glibness or mocking satire. Via voiceover, Susie announces almost immediately that she has since been murdered, all of her dreams and aspirations and time stripped cruelly and violently away from her. The emotion that director Peter Jackson is able to immediately create and the empathy with which he treats Susie are overwhelming, saying so much about the beauty of life and the unpredictability with which death can sometimes arrive. For these sparkling thirty minutes, the film was on par, both thematically and dramatically, with 2008's existential masterpiece "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Oh, woe, how far greatness can fall! From the moment Susie passes over to the other side after her fateful run-in in an empty cornfield with George Harvey on her way home from school, it is as if an entirely different, significantly more amateurish creative team takes over the reigns. The sequences of Susie in the In-Between, awash in majestic, ethereal landscapes and images (e.g. a gazebo floating in the middle of a lake; ships in giant glass bottles crashing along a seashore, etc.), are visually stunning, no doubt about it, but they serve no purpose other than to razzle-dazzle the viewer with stylistic overload. They do not further the story at all, become egregiously repetitive, and, worse still, strip Susie of her complexity as she is called upon to alternately look in awe, teary-eyed, and mopey. Pairing her in this afterlife with another young girl, Holly (Nikki SooHoo), doesn't help since little is done to develop their relationship.
As if all of that weren't enough to deaden the weight of the narrative, the scenes set on earth are just as badly squandered. All of the characters, from parents Jack and Abigail, to siblings Lindsey and Buckley (Christian Thomas Ashdale), to Grandma Lynn, to would-be boyfriend Ray, to a girl named Ruth Connors (Carolyn Dando) who is experiencing visions of Susie's restless spirit, become distant ciphers rather than further develop into flesh-and-blood people. They disappear for inordinately long periods of time with no explanation as to what they are going through, while others, like Susie's best friend Clarissa (Amanda Michalka), are forgotten about completely, never to be seen or heard from again. Instead of perceptively depicting the emotional toll of the characters' mourning over Susie, their grief remains on the surface, never explored or going any deeper than run-of-the-mill crying on beds. Grandma Lynn, seen early on to have a close, touching bond with Susie, doesn't reappear into the timeline until eleven months after her vanishing with nary a hint of how she took the tragic news and is now dealing with it. Instead of finally diving into her psyche, director Peter Jackson infuriatingly opts for a comic-relief music montage casting Lynn as an Auntie Mame type who starts fires while cooking, flicks her cigarette ashes into the top of the vacuum bag, shrinks clothes in the dryer, and happily dances around while soap suds overflow all over the laundry room. Somehow, this doesn't seem like what author Alice Sebold had in mind when she conceived of the novel.
Believe it or not, things get worse. Susie's killer, George Harvey, plays a prominent role in the goings-on, but is lazily viewed as nothing other than an evil, one-dimensional person without a shred of soul, no matter how diseased that soul might be. He eludes police, hides Susie's body in a safe, presides over a dollhouse and, when seen through the miniature windows, resembles a giant monster about to attack. Jack's, and later Lindsey's, suspicions of his guilt despite no concrete evidence lead to a scene that, in a different movie, would be right at home in a Brian De Palma picture of the late-'70s/early-'80s. Lindsey finds herself snooping in George's home while he is away, and she doesn't expect him back home as soon as he is. This set-piece might have been suspenseful were it not for the viewer's acknowledgment that he or she no longer cares about the who's and what's of the plot, all sense of feeling drained from the impersonal mishandling of the subject matter. That this scene leads nowhere significant is all the more enraging, but that we are forced to believe it happens at the same moment that Abigail conveniently arrives back home after being gone for possibly a year or two crosses beyond overly convenient and into the realm of the just plain stupid. Don't expect a tearful family reunion, either; the brother character of Buckley has been discarded from the proceedings by this point with no mention of what has happened to him.
The performances in "The Lovely Bones" are mostly fine; the injustice is that the actors have such poorly defined characters to portray. Saoirse Ronan (2008's "City of Ember
") gets off easiest since she is front-and-center during the terrific opening, instantly lovable in her curious naiveté and schoolgirl exuberance. Knowing right off the bat what is to happen to this beautiful girl is devastatingan emotion that slips away as the rest of the film takes one wrong step after another, emotional intimacy replaced by overbloated effects scenes and hideously uneven storytelling. Mark Wahlberg (2008's "Max Payne
") and especially Rachel Weisz (2008's "Definitely, Maybe
") are beyond wasted as parents Jack and Abigail, given nothing interesting to do and no satisfactory development. Do they have jobs? Friends? Who knows? Their characters, like the rest, are paper constructs, existing only within the span of the flawed screenplay pages. As Grandma Lynn, Susan Sarandon (2008's "Speed Racer
") is dynamite in her early scenes with Susie before she is turned into a comedic caricature. Stanley Tucci (2009's "Julie & Julia
") strikes many chilling notes as George Harvey, the kind of monster who could be silently living in anyone's neighborhood, but he is only given this one note to play and no substance to work with.
The wrap-up of "The Lovely Bones" is the final insult, growing loonier and gooier and more confused with every second. As Susie edges closer to Heaven and is welcomed by all the past victims of George Harvey, forever locked in their youth, it is not uplifting or pretty, but akin to if Enya threw up all over the frames. Moreover, what was Susie's reason for staying in the In-Between if nothing was going to be solved, either with her loved ones or with the criminal case? George's ultimate comeuppance, set years later, is anticlimactic in the extreme, further done in by shoddy effects work where it is not needed and the lame suggestion that some kind of spiritual or mystical force is behind what happens to him. And what, too, is the purpose of Ruth Connors, who receives signs from Susie from beyond the grave yet never once listens to them or pays attention to what she is trying to tell her? That the whole thing boils down to a kiss with a ghost and out-of-the-blue mumbo-jumbo involving body transference is the last silly straw, offensive in its ruinous cornball theatrics. The core of "The Lovely Bones" should be in the very tragedy that Susie Salmon, aged fourteen, will never grow older or get to experience all of the wonderful things that life has to offer. She'll never get to achieve her dreams. She'll never get to have kids of her own, or a profession, or find the love of her life. Alas, she'll never get her first kiss. It's horrible to think about, but not as horrible as the thought that director Peter Jackson has missed this whole point.