Alice Sebold’s best-selling novel “The Lovely Bones” tells the warm tale of a teen’s innocence, its horrific violation, and the healing process her family endures after the loss. Peter Jackson’s adaptation, The Lovely Bones, doesn’t seem concerned with these complex themes, instead transforming the story into a directionless supernatural thriller with plenty of pretty colors and no depth.
The bright blue-eyed Saoirse Ronan plays Susie Salmon, a lively 14-year-old girl living in suburban Pennsylvania circa 1973 with her average family. She’s a capable enough young actress, but is quickly reduced to wide-eyed stares and whispered voice overs.
The first half hour routinely establishes her ordinary teenage life; boy crushes, a photography hobby, and some limited social interaction. Until, on a walk home from school, Susie encounters a sinister stranger who lures her into an underground room where she’s brutally murdered. For the remainder, Susie watches and narrates from the “in between,” a purgatory that is neither Earth nor heaven.
For those that read Sebold’s novel, Jackson’s excessive use of visual effects won’t rival your own imagination, but it definitely tries. Rather than using the novel’s single heavenly perch and the book’s less-is-more approach, Susie occupies a vast, otherworldly paradise of ever-changing digital landscapes that might impress on a screensaver but do little for the narrative. Jackson indulges in CGI-heavy backdrops, settings that shift seasons, and vibrant, candy-coated palettes that bloom from a green screen, all of which distract from the character adapting to her surroundings.
The ambiguous timeline is worsened by a story that wanders aimlessly, like Susie in the afterlife, and an assembly of stagnant characters. In his anguish, Susie’s father Jack (Mark Wahlberg) becomes obsessed with uncovering the culprit and spirals towards insanity when the detective (Michael Imperioli) has seen enough suspects. Her mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz) leaves to grieve alone, and Susie’s boozy grandmother (Susan Sarandon) keeps the home in her absence.
Stanley Tucci‘s villainous Mr. Harvey provides much-needed weight to an otherwise drifting plot. Tucci wears a wispy come-over wig, a thin molester mustache, and a neighborly grin of pursed lips tightened at the edges, which combine to provoke an uneasy perception from the start. Harvey’s skeevy personality and inherit darkness creep to the surface with prolonged exposure and stir a growing aversion towards this vile recluse.
Still the film’s focus wavers, unwilling to settle entirely on discovering the truth behind her murder or witness the crumbling aftermath of the Salmon family. Peter Jackson seems caught in limbo himself, lingering on dark, gruesome imagery while chronicling Susie’s whimsical flights of fancy above. Outside of a suspenseful Hitchcock-style scene inside Harvey’s house, the camera loiters on the vacant stares of its characters or the slow, deliberate steps to no where in particular.
Even the most traumatic moments are stretched to agonizing lengths, sapped of their dramatic affect by cutting away to visual trickery or checking in on another idle character. Without any intellectual or emotional involvement, it’s difficult not to feel the ticking minutes of the film’s two-hour runtime instead. The last act especially sags to its dreary conclusion in what I can only imagine was my own personal hell.
Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones is a dull disappointment that never fully develops Susie’s astral existence or the troubled world she left behind. Read the book and skip the movie.
2 out of 5.