A 14-year-old girl in suburban 1970's Pennsylvania is murdered by her neighbor. She tells the story from the place between Heaven and Earth, showing the lives of the people around her and how they have changed all while attempting to get someone to find her lost body. Written by
In Susie's photo album that her father flips through, there is a picture of a Smurf figurine at the top of the right page. While Smurf figures were around in the 70s, that particular Smurf (a singing "rocker" Smurf with a microphone) wasn't released until the late 1990s. See more »
I remember being really small; too small to see over the edge of a table. There was a snow globe, and I remember the penguin who lived inside the globe. He was all alone in there, and I worried for him.
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a grand, sloppy folly for Peter Jackson, his writers
I'm not sure how so much could go wrong on this film. It seemed like a pretty sure thing: a book that has been very widely acclaimed and read as a work of sad life-and-death meditation from a 14 year old girl looking down or somehow from the "in-between", a kind of purgatory, after being raped and murdered, on her family and killer. It seems like the stuff that could make for some harrowing dramatic material... or, possibly, a sappy story. It turns out Jackson takes the latter route, but there's more than that wrong here. It's a giant miscalculation that has a few moments of real impact and where the performances match up with the material.
Maybe it's just a general attitude that Jackson and his writers, wife Fran Walsh and Philippa Bowens, take from the book. What might have been poignant observations, for example, from the girl Suzie Salmon (like the fish) becomes a series of really jagged narration in the film that is a) poorly written, b) in a continuously ineffective and/or annoying tone from Saoirse Ronan (who is not bad in the film, by the way, when the material requires it), and c) it's redundant. We see her sights in this in-between world, moving about and in quick motions without consistency, though as with Avatar one might say at least it's "pretty", and her descriptions are at best unnecessary and at worst just stupid. It's some of the worst use of narration last year (compare it to The Informant! and see how much of a drop-off it is).
But narration is just one thing. Another is a lack of focus in the story, and actually getting to really care about any one of the living characters. It's not really the actors fault, as Wahlberg, Weisz and Imperioli do what they can in their roles (Wahlberg especially, in spite of everything, throws himself into the devastated father well). When it comes time for us to really get into the emotional grit and horror of this situation, of how horrible it really is, it's actually glossed over by Suzie's situation up in the in-between. There isn't a solid 'conflict' about who the killer is since it's revealed in the first few minutes of the film. On top of this the logic on Stanley Tucci's character is all-too obvious - it's a perfectly creepy performance, but a little subtlety might have helped. And then there's the lush grandmother played by Susan Sarandon that is used for very ill-timed and unfunny comic relief midway through the movie, after which she's pushed aside to a reactionary role.
And yet I didn't have as big a problem like some critics have had, which is with the in-between itself and its visual scheme. While it's not as imaginative as Jackson seems to think it is, it does reflect, more or less, what a 14 year old girl's emotional state would be in an afterlife world. It's more-so a problem when Jackson deals with balancing this fantasy afterworld with the real one, and the rules of how Suzie reaches out to those is never firmly established (the one girl she brushes against running down the street is one thing, her parents and sister are another). It's not so much the sights but, again, a mood and attitude that Jackson botches: what is with this Asian girl that accompanies Suzie? It's explained, to be sure, as are the other victims of Tucci's child killer, but the attachment she has with her previous life and family is screwy, it becomes muddled and unsatisfying.
I would almost stop short... no, I would just about claim that this is close to being the kind of cloying, sappy crap that one would usually find its way onto Lifetime, where struggles are put to melodramatic limits, and by the end every plot strand, no matter how unlikely, is resolved (one of those, involving Rachel Weisz's character, is just ridiculous in its timing). And yet for all of the story and character problems, for all the clunky dialog, Jackson has a few moments where he can let his actors have room to breathe. Chief of these are scenes involving suspense, when Suzie is in the lair of the man who will kill her, which is a gradual scene of weird intensity, and then later a scene where Tucci comes into his house while Suzie's sister is snooping around. Little glimmers of the kind of filmmaker one saw from fifteen years ago on another movie about teenage girls and the fragility of life and death and love, Heavenly Creatures, in such real dramatic clarity and power. But that's all really.
The Lovely Bones has so much that could go right with it that it's most disappointing how wrong it goes. It takes someone with as much talent and passion as Jackson to screw up on this level. He and his writers have not made an exactly boring movie, but it could very well be for some in the audience. I found myself shaking my head and frowning at what I saw, a watered down vision of reconciling grief and loss, and at best a mixed-bag of a story surrounding a not-whodunit about a child killer. Some may be moved, and more power to them. I couldn't wait for this wishy-washy journey to end.
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