It's not Saoirse Ronan's fault the film doesn't work.
The Lovely Bones
Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz and Stanley Tucci
Goes well with: Heavenly Creatures, Mystic River, What Dreams May Come
It should have been a match made in heaven: Peter Jackson, one of the most admired directors of the decade, thanks to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, adapting Alice Sebold's best-selling, beloved novel, The Lovely Bones.
It isn't, though, even if heaven plays a large part in the proceedings. The film doesn't come together, despite the fact that Jackson, who co-wrote the script with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, truncated Sebold's work quite well. But while he gets right the parts the book got wrong, he gets wrong what the book got right. That's a tragic lapse for a film that's clearly targeting the source material's demographic. In many ways, in fact, it feels as though Jackson and his collaborators missed what the novel is about.
If you've read The Lovely Bones, you may recall what puts things into motion. Fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan, a terrifically talented young actor) is lured into an underground structure created by neighborhood creep George Harvey (Stanley Tucci, who may well get an Oscar nod for excessive creepiness). And once he's got her in his lair, he rapes and murders her.
Don't worry—that's not a spoiler. Susie announces her death to us in the first few moments of the film. That's the hook, in fact. The Lovely Bones is narrated by Susie, who's still watching her family after her death, from heaven or a place quite like it. She's trying to make sense of the horrific pain her parents (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz), sister (Rose McIver) and grandmother (Susan Sarandon) are going through. You see, The Lovely Bones isn't really about murder; it's about grief, the sort of terrible, wretched, all-consuming grief that we, as a species and as individuals, aren't wired to deal with. And that brutal pain isn't limited to Susie's family. Just like them, she's grieving for the life taken from her, the precious moments she'll never experience and the unfairness of it all.
It's clear that Jackson understands that to a degree, but he focuses much of his energy and attention on the visuals of the post-death realm Susie now inhabits. Is this heaven? Purgatory? Is it simply the place where you go when your business on Earth hasn't been finished? Whatever it is, it's an ever-changing world of lush overgrowth, decay, emotional freedom and extreme CGI. It's lovely to look at, but it doesn't mean anything. And it's this cotton-candy-colored world into which Susie wanders. She pals around with another girl, Holly (Nikki Soohoo), doing whatever her imagination will allow, but also trying to find a way to escape it all. She follows her family's attempts to cope and spies on Mr. Harvey, who, for years, barely registers on anyone's radar as a suspect, despite his obvious serial killer-ness.
As the sheer volume of grief begins to splinter the family, both Weisz and Wahlberg have their moments. He becomes obsessed with finding Susie's killer, badgering the officer (Michael Imperioli) investigating the case to the point of interfering. At the same time, his wife is desperate for emotional support that he's unable to give.
Though Jackson gives his cast leeway, what you remember at the end isn't the acting but, rather, two or three staggeringly well-done sequences. The moment in which Susie's murderer almost catches her sister snooping in his house is unbelievably tense, as is a scene toward the end, when Harvey is attempting to destroy evidence. But the standout bits can't cover up a montage that's supposed to explain why grandma is absolutely the wrong person to step in when the family needs help. It's embarrassingly misplaced. Seriously. A montage. With music. In a movie that deals with the rape and murder of a little girl.
It's that sort of warm fuzzy that Jackson strives for throughout the film that is so misguided. Yes, it's possible to get past grief in life, but fans of the book may find that when it comes to the grief they have over its treatment, it's simply not possible.
Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.