by Scott Mendelson
The Lovely Bones is a film constantly afraid of its own subject matter. It is, at its core, the story of the rape and murder of a child and the effect that it has on those left behind. But the picture constantly shies away from exploring the depths of grief and sorrow at any level beyond the surface. It throws everything else it can at you, suspense scenes, comic relief, a visual realization of the afterlife, to distract you from the realization that the movie is desperately afraid of its own shadow. I don't know whether to blame the movie or the original book, but the material is so afraid of making you feel bad that it fails to make you feel much of anything. As a result, the film is surprisingly cold, and the emotional highs are few and far between.
A token amount of plot - Susie Salmon was just fourteen-years old when she was raped and murdered by a next-door neighbor. As she looks on from the next world (which isn't quite heaven), she watches as her family tries to put the pieces back together, her friends try to move on, and her murderer goes about his business, safe in his anonymity. That's pretty much all you need. This is not a plot driven film, nor even a dialogue-driven one. While the first act takes its time setting up characters and preparing viewers for the inevitably tragedy, the picture becomes more like a tone poem for its later acts. Much of second and third acts of the picture are told either in voice-over from our young protagonist or through wordless montage. Unfortunately, as is often the case when voice-over is deployed, the ongoing narration feels the need to point out obvious story turns and character beats. It gets to the point when we become grateful for any scene in which two characters talk to each other for any extended period of time.
Still, when Peter Jackson actually lets his actors perform, they relish the opportunity. Saoirise Ronan is in nearly every scene, and she admirably braves both the CGI-intensive afterlife moments and the often puerile voice over she is forced to utter. Most importantly, she creates a vivid portrait of a human being worth mourning. Stanley Tucci does wonderfully entertaining work as the local neighborhood murderer. Forgoing any need to make Mr. Harvey overtly evil or inherently sympathetic, Tucci creates an almost comical loser who would be amusing if he didn't kill children. This is one of Tucci's best performances since his star-making turn as Richard Cross in the debut season of Murder One, back in 1995. Even Mark Wahlberg shines in his occasional moments, although the screenplay lets him down by forcing him to act obnoxiously obsessed for much of the picture. He is more compelling in the earlier moments, simply playing a loving patriarch without laying on the cheese.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast gets short-shifted. Rachel Weisz gets almost nothing to do, and her mourning process is barely touched upon. Susan Sarandon has maybe two actual dialogue scenes, as the freewheeling grandma brought in to tend to the house after the family falls apart. Unfortunately, she spends most of the movie as gratuitous comic relief. Michael Imperioli, as a police detective, gets a great moment in the first hour, interviewing Mr. Harvey through the windows in a dollhouse. But he too fades into the background for the rest of the film. The surviving children get little to no development, Rose McIver, as Susie's younger sister, gets a corker of a scene late in the picture, but it's purely plot-driven and her character pretty much exists purely for that late-film moment. Buckley, the young son, basically disappears in the latter half of the film. The film is just over two hours, and it certainly would have benefited from some extra character work in the middle act. Oddly enough, in this film about a family torn apart by the murder of their child, the most compelling character in the film is the murderer.
The much-debated heavenly moments are visually striking, and surprisingly low-key for much of the movie. Yes, there are a few moments that suggest What Dreams May Come (a more powerful film about grief and family strife) and one scene looks like an outtake from Super Mario Galaxy, but the majority of the afterlife represents only a slightly surreal version of the world that Susie lived in prior to her murder. Although I found them less engaging than the real-world moments, the film eventually lays out the reasons for the images that we see. Still, the need to cut back to the somewhat fantastical other world is representative of the film's core problem. Here is a film about a young girl learning to live with the idea that she is no longer alive, and her family learning to cope with the same stark reality. But the film has an oddly light tone, and a screenplay that almost seems written as a family film. There is too much humor, too many moments of admittingly nail-biting suspense, too few moments where characters simply talk to each other.
Considering Peter Jackson's past successes with glorious excess, this seems an odd circumstance where his film is much too short, with character and mood being given the boot. The Lord of the Rings trilogy will likely top my eventual best-of 2000s list, and King Kong will likely show up somewhere in the mix. I remain hopeful that this is simply a hiccup and not the start of a heartbreaking, M. Night Shyamalan-ish creative downturn. Still, that The Lovely Bones is not the movie I wanted it to be may be my problem more than Jackson's. It is well-acted and well-directed. I bemoan mainly the lack of character development as well as a certain unwillingness to embrace the darkness for the sake of a more audience-friendly picture. As a somewhat agnostic Jew, I'm curious if the film will be more powerful for more spiritual moviegoers. For what it's worth, the person who tagged along with me for the press screening, a Catholic fellow film nerd, absolutely loved the film and found it incredibly engaging. If the movie moves you in a way that it did not move me, you have only my envy. In the end, The Lovely Bones is an ambitious spectacle that just didn't do a thing for me.