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Philly2Philly.com Reviews The Lovely Bones


The Lovely Bones. Sound familiar? It should. The book is one of the biggest bestsellers of the past few years, privy to Oprah’s famous book club stamp, and can likely be found collecting dust on coffee tables and bookshelves throughout America as I write this review. When director Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings, King Kong ) was chosen to finally bring the novel to the big screen, more than a few heads turned. The book, as it stood, was one of those works that wouldn't exactly make sense as a film, so the pressure was on to capture the essence of the story without creating a big mess.

Well, the movie is finally here, and unfortunately, it's kind of a big mess. Surely, there are things that work within The Lovely Bones. There are moments that are impressive with tension, heartbreak, and some great performances. However, all of the elements appear only in glimpses, and there are far too many things going on here to make this a well rounded movie experience. The Lovely Bones Movie

For those who haven't read the book, the story starts with a glimpse of a young girl's teenage life. Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is as well adjusted as a young girl can be, with a great family and a very loving supportive father. She spends her time doing the normal teenage stuff, obsessing over boys in class and defying her mother. She also has early dreams of becoming a photographer, eating through dozens of Kodak rolls in record time.

However, Susie is also narrating this story, an indication that what the audience is watching is past tense. This is because Susie has died, and now is telling the story of her life and death from heaven. "I was 14 when I was murdered, she chillingly recalls in the initial moments of the film. The death occurred at the hands of her neighbor, George (Stanley Tucci), a psychotic serial killer that preyed on her for some time.

The movie is divided into sections. First, Susie narrates on her home life, professing the love her dad had for her, as well as her siblings. She goes through the motions and we watch as she encounters the dangerous George, who rapes and murders her. Thus begins the next portion of the film, which introduces Susie to a mysterious purgatory, a vibrant kaleidoscope of technicolor landscapes and endless sky. The final section is devoted to the family slowly tracking down Susie's killer and bringing him to justice, while Susie watches nervously from the afterworld.

So perhaps it's best to start with what works here. The first thirty minutes of the movie are pretty pitch perfect. Jackson does an admirable job establishing the family unit, introducing key characters, and capturing the essence and beauty of a teenager on the brink of adulthood. He also handles the off-screen rape and murder skillfully, maximizing the unsettling factor without ever showing the act. The buildup is blisteringly intense.

Building on that, what Jackson seems to do best here can be narrowed down to two categories. One is the extravagant special effects, and more on that in a minute. His primary strength, however, resides in the horror elements of the story. Jackson is no stranger to the genre, and knows how to set a seriously oppressive mood. Every time the serial killer is on the screen, the audience's skin crawls and the muscles tighten. As aforementioned, the murder scene is not shown, but still remains highly disturbing, and a dream sequence after showing the remnants of the act is scary stuff. The suspense can be unbearable too, as seen in a later sequence when Susie's sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) breaks into George's house to obtain evidence for incrimination.

The special effects remain Jackson's other strength, but this is where problems also set in. The effects are beautiful, sometimes breathtaking, and they truly represent the kind of creative, dreamlike imagery one might expect in such a place. However, they are far too extreme, and literally pull the audience out of the story, which should be the central focus. The Lovely Bones novel was essentially about a young girl's family coping and growing from their daughter's death, not a sequel to The Neverending Story.

Elsewhere, the film is a mess. With so many things going on, nothing ever sticks permanently. The movie has moments of tenderness and sadness, but they are scattered between the overstuffed imagery and the serial killer plotline. Jackson brings in Susan Sarandon  as the boozing grandmom Lynn, providing comic relief that kills the tone. Without the primary focus on the family unit, the message never gets delivered, and the connection isn't strong enough. By the time the open ended conclusion rolls around, disappointment is inevitable. There is also a character whose death is handled in such an awkward, forced manner that threatens to sour the entire film itself.

The performances overall hurt the movie. The script poorly develops the adult characters, but neither Rachel Weisz  nor Mark Wahlberg  come across as anything more than dull. Wahlberg is particularly wooden, failing to bring that likeable quality to his raging father, despite his googly eyes or fits of violence. None of it translates in what is essentially a terribly miscast role. Sarandon has a bit part and is really a caricature. Both teenage actresses shine, however. Rose McIver, who plays the older sister, has enough spunk and fire to keep anyone interested. When she is on the screen, the audience is glued. Ronan, who plays Susie, gives an empathetic, layered performance that effectively anchors the film. The award goes to Tucci though playing the murderous neighbor George. A bottle of slowly building internal rage, Tucci's George is as unpredictable as he is terrifying—guaranteed to give you some serious goosebumps.

In the end, The Lovely Bones is a misfire. It's an entertaining enough effort, and not a bad film, but considering all the talent involved, not a success. Audiences will likely walk away feeling indifferent about the movie, perhaps gaining a renewed sense of respect for Alice Sebold's novel, which is a beautiful story whose strongest representation remains in the written form.

Movie Grade: C+

Photo credit: Paramount Pictures