Archly stylized, emotionally heavy, and toting all sorts of cinematic and literary pedigrees, The Lovely Bones sets out to say and do so much, but more often sadly ends up overwrought and under-thought.
1) I have not read Alice Sebold’s book, The Lovely Bones. Normally I'd say you certainly don't have to have read a book when evaluating its film adaptation, but in this case the book is so beloved, the movie version is seen more more as an adaptation first and a film second. I can only speak to the latter.
2) Director Peter Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens are responsible for one of my favorite cinematic achievements of all time: The Lord of the Rings. For that alone, they will always be in my personal Hall of Fame.
3) I don't believe in any sort of afterlife—not secular, not scientific, not ghosts, not Heaven, not reincarnation, not Candyland… nothing.
I only mention these things because I'm interested in how where you stand on them may factor to some degree into how you feel about Jackson et al’s film adaptation of The Lovely Bones.
It’s 1973, and 14-year-old Susie Salmon, full of life and anxious to experience love, is lured into an underground Hell and murdered. And that’s where Susie’s story really begins. Hovering in the “In Between”—the place Earthly spirits stop off on their way to Heaven—Susie looks down on her grieving family, her furtive killer living next door to them, and the dreamy boy-crush from whom she’d hoped to receive her first kiss. For Susie, the In Between is an amusement park of the afterlife, full of delightful colors and foliage and occasionally littered with pretty heavy-handed visual symbolism of how events on Earth are echoing the cathartic spiritual journey Susie must fulfill before she moves on up to the Pearly Gates.
Devotees of Sebold’s surprise 2002 best-seller will certainly come to the film version with expectations and quibbles, and have already voiced their displeasure over how Jackson, the one-time gore-horror enthusiast, has toned down the story’s pivotal murder and removed all mention of the rape in order to make the film more palatable for a younger crowd (namely the Twihards). (To be fair, the film still maintains plenty of chilling PG-13 dread and horror around the event.)
And despite my eternal reverence for Jackson’s LOTR achievement, I found his labor of love on 2005’s King Kong to be a well-done, but overdone near miss. Kong’s parade of action and monsters was right in Jackson’s wheelhouse and it still came up short.
The Lovely Bones is a step in a different direction for the director—sure, it still revolves around a horrific murder, and sure, he explored the dramatic fantasy world of young women in his 1994 Heavenly Creatures. But The Lovely Bones needed to function more as a deeply emotional study of grief and loss than a murder-mystery thriller. Jackson can do the latter, but simply cannot seem to lock in on the former.
Then there's The Lovely Bones’ presentation of a just and perfect afterlife—an “in-between” place where the deceased can party like disco still lives and make fleeting, distant contact with the living before they move on to Heaven. My question is to what extent the film's afterlife is not just a fantastical storytelling device, but instead homespun, comforting wish fulfillment. Is The Lovely Bones the kind of film some people come away from saying “ooh, I like that idea of the afterlife—I think it could really be like that, and that makes me feel better about dying and about all the bad things people do and have done to them on Earth. Like raping and murdering, or being raped and murdered.”
I have no problem with a book or film using the notion of an afterlife as a plot point or an interesting way of telling a tale. But more than something like Heaven Can Wait, Defending Your Life or even The Rapture, there's a sense that The Lovely Bones is set up to “sell” us its idea of the afterlife as a genuine emotional answer. The fact that the film puts so much of its thematic and entertainment appeal on the viewers buying into the In Between means that rather than draw me personally in, it alienated me. Which is why I mentioned my own feelings about an afterlife—there’s no doubt they affected how the movie played for me. If you have different beliefs, it may well play differently for you.
Normally I'd say you don't have to believe in something supernatural or faith-based in order to appreciate a film that deals in those concepts. I like plenty of fantasy films, I love The Exorcist even though I don't believe in demons, I even appreciated Paranormal Activity. And I can name a lot of films likes those above or even It's a Wonderful Life where the notion of an afterlife is used to present a philosophical concept about how to appreciate your life and existence and how the world and people around you interconnect. But if the In Between in The Lovely Bones is merely there–as in those other films–to act as a metaphoric plot device to help deliver that message, then my problem with the film is that, like many films that reach for a deeper meaning, it doesn't deliver that message effectively.
However, it could also be argued that the message some viewers might take from The Lovely Bones–on some level, conscious or sub-conscious–is that there is an afterlife/In Between and we should take comfort from knowing that death is not the end, that we can still "be with" our loved ones after their deaths or our own, that even if you die you can still remain connected to Earthly life.
In one of the film's better moments an uncharacteristically angry and bitter Susie cries, "Look at what he did to me. What am I now, the dead girl? The lost girl, the missing girl?! I'm nothing!" powerfully underscoring anyone's fear of truly being gone and forgotten — or reduced to a cliche — after their death. So is this a film that truly offers the viewer emotional and metaphysical comfort by saying, "here, this is what the afterlife could be like"? If so, then whether or not you believe in an afterlife is important to what you think of the film overall.
Even if you don’t care one way or another about Sebold’s book, have no idea who Peter Jackson is, and have no set thoughts on post-death metaphysics, The Lovely Bones doesn’t completely work as a film. It’s not a total failure, it’s not a complete mess or boring misfire. But it simply does not come together with the sort of genuinely heartbreaking wallop it so clearly seeks to deliver.
You can’t blame the cast, especially not Saoirse Ronan (Atonement), who as Susie is note-perfect both in life and death. She’s handed some archly emotional material—the appeal of Susie is her from-beyond wisdom and perspective filtered through her teenage aches and yearnings. But Ronan’s wide-eyed, hyper-expressive openness gets that mix just right, filling Susie with a richly ironic enthusiasm for life—she's Nancy Drew, Dead-Girl Detective, by way of Emily in Our Town.
Stanley Tucci does almost as well with George Harvey, Susie’s murderer. Donning his sociopathic pedophile eye wear, he’s the more-realistic portrait of the serial killer not as a suave, European aesthete, but rather a dorky, pathetic loser constantly trying to fake a desperate, practiced calm and normalcy. He’s also, in his own sick way, an artist himself, letting his evil desires fuel the design of his creative death traps.
On first look I was shocked by Mark Wahlberg’s performance as Susie’s obsessed, grieving dad. It seemed to be flying in from a different, more offbeat and over-the-top film; Wahlbergville by way of Cage-land. But a second viewing puts Wahlberg’s tone a little more in line with the overall style of the film. Jack Salmon is weird and obsessive and somewhat out of step with the world around him.
Rachel Weisz, on the other hand, doesn’t have much to do as Susie’s mother—she’s barely there even when she is. (One of the character's major sub-plots from the book has been removed from the film.) And Susan Sarandon–as Susie’s chain-smoking, boozy, floozy grandmother–gamely serves her purpose as a comic-relief example of how to live a long, don’t-give-a-crap life to its fullest.
The story must somehow transmute the darkest nastiness of human
cruelty into transcendent hope without coming off as cheap and cloying.
(Here’s a secret: that’s the key to Life, too.) And while I haven’t
read Sebold’s book, judging by its popularity, it seems her prose was
able to do what Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens' screenplay cannot. You can
see what the film is reaching for, the spirit in which it was
assembled, but it doesn't get there.
Jackson and his co-writers went for something easier, more familiar,
marketable and entertaining: a metaphysical murder mystery. The film's
main focus is on Susie helping her family members on Earth solve her
murder and on her confronting her killer's secrets–and that, not so
much her family's grief, becomes the true driving narrative and
thematic force of The Lovely Bones.
The film makers fall
back on manipulative button-pushing tricks and fantastic dazzle to
sneak around their inability to pull the film together. (How much all
this impresses you may depend on how familiar you are with the notion
of snow globes and ships in bottles as life symbols.) It all comes off
as one big show, an attempt to whip a personal tale into something epic
(a genre where Jackson is more at home), but it leaves The Lovely Bones emotionally bare.
As much as I still respect and admire Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens, in the end, The Lovely Bones is this year’s Benjamin Button. Nice ideas, touching moments, pretty images, and decent performances, but ultimately so thematically and tonally muddled it glides right over you, never truly connecting on any level other than cheap sentiment.