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 sadly fails to fully come together as a film. Still, even with its flaws, there’s enough powerful stuff going on to make it worth watching. And maybe rewatching.
Below is a condensed version of my original review of The Lovely Bones back in January on its theatrical release. The Lovely Bones is now on DVD and available for rental from redbox.
NOTES ON THE DVD RELEASE:
From the moment I walked out of the theater last December, I’ve been wrestling with this film and why it didn’t completely work for me. I’ve since read Alice Sebold’s novel and seen Peter Jackson’s film three more times, and I’ve come to find The Lovely Bones fascinating in its flaws, and even powerful in its moments. I can honestly say I recommend it–it’s not perfect, it still doesn’t hold together as a creative whole, I still cringe at its goofy wish-fulfillment metaphysics and first-kiss cosmic silliness.
But I keep watching The Lovely Bones because it’s full of elements that have stuck with me and bring me back to it: Saoirse Ronan’s note-perfect performance of hope, horror, and eventual transcendent acceptance; the film’s rich and often mundanely eerie palette of colors, the lurid skies, the foreboding corn fields; and the inescapable punch–uneven as it sometimes is–of the film’s dark nightmares and bright epiphanies.
As I said in the comments in January, I’ve spent more time watching and thinking about The Lovely Bones this year than films I feel are more successful. Some of that is my trying to figure out exactly why the film fell short of its potential, but a lot of it is that, lumps and all, The Lovely Bones tells a powerful, compelling story–one I’m learning, with each viewing, to accept and embrace on its own imperfect terms.
My original theatrical review:
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 (ships in bottles! snow globes!) 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, The Lovely Bones, will certainly come to the film version with expectations and quibbles, and have already voiced their displeasure over how Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens have toned down the story’s pivotal murder and removed all mention of rape in order to make the film more palatable for a younger crowd. (To be fair, the film still maintains plenty of chilling PG-13 dread and horror around the event.)
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. There’s a sense that The Lovely Bones is set up to “sell” us its idea of the afterlife as a genuine emotional answer.
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!” Is this a film that offers the viewer 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 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 quasi-spiritual, New Agey wallop it 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. You can see what the film is reaching for, the spirit in which it was assembled, but it doesn’t get there. 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.
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 thematically and tonally muddled.