Posted on 1/02/10 10:40 AM
It's not enough to call THE LOVELY BONES a disappointment. This is a cinematic failure of monumental proportions. Some may assume that my expectations were too high because Peter Jackson is responsible for The Lord of the Rings trilogy (which is my #1 all-time favorite film). Certainly ONE of the reasons why this film SHOULD have been at least GOOD is the fact that Jackson did such a flawless job translating LOTR to film. But it's more than that. There's the fact that 15 years ago Jackson gave us a masterpiece in HEAVENLY CREATURES, which (much like THE LOVELY BONES) makes an attempt to meld the beautiful images of an ethereal world with the harsh emotional reality of the physical world. The difference between both films in terms of their success at that attempt could not be any bigger: THE LOVELY BONES is nothing but a set of "pretty" images that don't always connect effectively with the film's emotional component, and even when they do, you just don't care, because the emotional component of the film is handled so poorly. This is even harder to believe in light of the truly magnificent source material that Jackson had to work with here. As hard as it may seem to believe, the book is not only much more effective in how it evokes images, but it's also a thousand times more successful in its development of the plot and characters.
Wrong notes start being hit right off the bat in THE LOVELY BONES, so much that there are even inconsistencies in the dialogue. Susie (Saoirse Ronan) is at the mall with her grandmother (Susan Sarandon), and Susie is mesmerized as she watches Ray (Reece Ritchie), a cute boy who goes to her school. The grandmother immediately notices that Susie's attracted to him, but Susie tells her that Ray doesn't even know she exists. A few seconds later, the grandmother asks Susie whether or not they have kissed yet - why would the script have her ask this question, if Susie had already told her that the two of them haven't even spoken? If this were the only flaw in THE LOVELY BONES, it'd be an insignificant quibble, but unfortunately, it's only the beginning. The eventual "romance" that SUPPOSEDLY develops between Susie and Ray is based on one half-assed, shockingly short scene in which Susie asks Ray what they have in common, and he responds "Don't you know?" After this question is asked and a kiss ALMOST occurs, we're supposed to believe that these two are in love, and that Susie's death will have a massive emotional impact on him. Where is the development? That one scene does NOTHING to establish a connection between Susie and Ray, and it renders the relationship between Ray and Susie's spirit completely artificial and impossible to feel sympathy for. The character of Ray is handled terrifically in Alice Sebold's book. Here, the scenes that he takes part in are completely flat, and the fact that the awesome character of his mother was totally excluded from the film is completely ridiculous.
If the scenes involving Susie's family were any better, the film would still have hope for some level of success, but the thud of failure in these scenes is every bit as resounding. After Susie is murdered, a few scenes ensue, and suddenly, one character states that it's been 11 months since Susie disappeared. My eyes widened at that point, and the question I asked myself was: "Where is the grief and the desperation from the family? We've hardly seen any of it since she disappeared." Then I realized what had been happening. The scenes after Susie's murder eschewed showing the family's efforts to find her and the devastating effects of their failure to find any clues, and instead decided to show us an unnecessary amount of images of Susie's spirit prancing around the grassy fields of the "world" she has now entered in her afterlife. It's not that I have a problem with the film's exploration of where Susie's soul goes after she dies. That's an integral part of the story. What I do have a problem with is that the film fails so miserably at balancing that side of the story with the emotional turmoils experienced by her family members.
There's such a thing as an exaggerated amount of symbolism, and this becomes more of a problem when there's little need or sense to be found in said symbolism. There's no doubt that this is one of the many issues to be had with THE LOVELY BONES. There are too many scenes in which it's impossible to escape the feeling that random images are being thrown our way for the sake of making the film seem technically striking and more meaningful than it actually is. There's a particularly bothersome sequence in which we're forced several times to watch the same image of Susie riding her bicycle in front of her parents, saying "Hey, dad, look at me!" It's the sort of thing that makes you want to yell "Okay, I get it already!" to the screen. The character of Susie's little brother Buckley (Christian Thomas Ashdale) hardly gets any screen time, but he does pop up at one point to conveniently announce that "Susie's in the in-between." Where he got this feeling from is impossible to know because the film doesn't tell us, because it's too busy showing us images of prairies. A scene towards the end in which Susie starts discovering the other victims of her killer is a TOTAL mess and feels absolutely misplaced - there's NO comparison to how well this is handled in Sebold's book.
There are two intense high points in this story that are supposed to hit the toughest emotional blows. The first one is, of course, Susie's death at the hands of her neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci). What does the film do with this sequence? Nothing. Jackson makes the unacceptable mistake of toning this down to ensure a PG-13 rating, and this is easily the most significant error committed in this film. The story may be about a 14-year-old girl, but there's no doubt that this is an adult tale. This film is NOT supposed to be aimed at the same audience that gets in line to see the TWILIGHT films. Ironically, THE LOVELY BONES is such a bad movie that, as it turns out, this year's entry to the TWILIGHT franchise (NEW MOON) is actually a better film. If you had told me at this point last year that that would be my opinion, I would've laughed incredibly hard. The second high point of the story comes towards the end, a brilliant moment in which Susie and Ray are able to consummate their love for one another despite the fact that Susie is no longer a living human. Once again, the desire to keep things PG-13 gets in the way here... then again, as I mentioned, the subplot of Susie and Ray's romance is handled so poorly from the very beginning that it probably wouldn't have worked, anyway.
Saoirse Ronan's performance is fine, but leagues below the stunning work she did in 2007's ATONEMENT. Even worse, in her voiceover, Jackson apparently forced her to deliver her lines with a constant sense of wonder that is ONLY appropriate for the Heaven scenes, and not AT ALL appropriate for the scenes in which she watches her family (if anyone had doubts that the film really does give too much weight to the scenes in the afterlife and too little to the human, emotional component, here's all the evidence you need). The only remarkable performance to be found in the film is that of Rachel Weisz, as Susie's mother; unfortunately, she gets too little screen time, so we don't get the reprieve that her acting could've given us from the sheer mediocrity of everything else. As Susie's father, Mark Wahlberg gives a lot of bewildered stares, and um... that's about it. A sequence in which his character calls the detective to start giving off a list of names of possible suspects who may have killed Susie feels rushed and dumb, rather than giving off the sense of desperation that needs to be conveyed at that point of the film.
But the biggest disappointments in terms of acting come from the two actors who could've very easily given Oscar-worthy performances. The first is Susan Sarandon, as Grandma Lynn, who, in the book, is a delightfully wacky character, but in this film, Sarandon's facial expressions are largely blank, and much like Weisz's character, her screen time is awfully limited. Grandma Lynn should've been the comedic relief of this movie. But again, no relief at all. The second disappointment comes from Stanley Tucci. This is the kind of role that the Best Supporting Actor Oscar was made for. I have no idea why Tucci decided to portray George Harvey as a ridiculous, bumbling idiot. There's a scene in the film that had a lot of potential to be very suspenseful. The scene is well-showcased in the trailer: Susie's sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) breaks into the killer's house to try to find evidence that it was indeed him who killed her sister. It's beyond me why Tucci decides to have this gruff look on his face during this scene that renders him silly rather than menacing (there's also an ill-advised shot in which it seems that Tucci himself is carrying the camera as he runs around the house). George Harvey should be the opposite of your conventional movie villain, but that's exactly what we get here.
THE LOVELY BONES is a colossal misfire. There are those who will argue that certain novels are "unfilmable," and that's something I strongly disagree with. A piece of literature may be HARD to turn into cinema, but if that's the case, all you need to do is make certain modifications that will make for a smooth transition to the screen. It might piss off people who loved the source material, but it's the responsible thing to do in order to make a film adaptation that can stand on its own. That's exactly what Jackson accomplished with LOTR, and the result was a staggering masterpiece. I'll never understand how he came up with this dud. And actually, even if there ARE novels out there that could be "unfilmable," THE LOVELY BONES is certainly not one of them. All this film had to do was establish a better balance between the scenes in the physical world and the scenes in the afterlife. How could anyone think that plot and character development should be sacrificed for images of a heaven that was, quite frankly, pretty dull and unimpressive (not really the place I'd want to go to when I die)? Oh, and the other thing the film needed to do was be rated R. I'd hate to find out that the sole reason why some of the novel's most emotionally searing moments were eschewed from the script was simply out of a desire for better box office results. And if it was, then that's further proof that money corrupts; in this case, it corrupted a wonderful story by turning it into a shockingly underwhelming, at times even aggravating, piece of filmmaking.