Sunday, May 16, 2010

"The Lovely Bones" is a Mangled Carcass

"The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold is one of those books that I've been meaning to read for ages, but never got around to before I sat down and watched the film version. Now my curiosity has been piqued to get a hold of a copy of the book for comparison purposes, just to confirm for myself that Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and all the wonderful, talented people involved with the adaptation really screwed up with the material as badly as I believe they did. In a year of high profile disappointments, "The Lovely Bones" may have outdone all the others, squandering an A-list cast and a fairly hefty budget for what should have been a small, intimate film. Instead we have a big, awkward one, stuffed to the gills with expensive CGI, with its story skewed and warped all out of proportion.

Our heroine is Susie Salmon, a precocious fourteen-year-old girl who lives in a small Pennsylvania town, and is earnestly played by Saoirse Ronan. After an idyllic introduction to Susie's world, supported by loving parents Jack (Mark Wahlberg) and Abigail (Rachel Weisz), where the possibility of young love comes in the form of a classmate named Ray (Reece Ritchie), the story takes a darker turn. On her way home from school one night, Susie is murdered by a neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci). But this is not the end of Susie, as her soul is caught in the netherworld limbo of the "In Between," where she watches over the people she left behind as they struggle to cope with her unexplained disappearance.

It's at this point that the movie starts to fall apart. While Saoirse Ronan is a talented young actress and easily carries the picture, it's not necessary for her to do so. From explicit statements made in the film itself, "The Lovely Bones" is supposed to examine the effects of Susie Salmon's death on those around her, and Susie's role meant to become that of an observer after her demise. Jackson proves unwilling or unable to shift the focus of the film from her to the other characters. We remain with Susie throughout, following her around the CGI paradise of the In Between though the important action always takes place on Earth. The bulk of the film's budget seems to have been expended on the In Between as well, on lovely, fantastic vistas and fancy effects sequences that are very nice to look at, but completely extraneous to the story.

When the film does pay attention to the other characters, it's only briefly and in the most shallow manner. The Salmon family's reactions to Susie's disappearance are all dutifully captured, from Jack's escalating obsession over the possibility of foul play to Abigail's eventual estrangement. However they remain as at a distance, seen only from Susie's point of view over a span of several years. Susan Sarandon even shows up for a cameo as a boozy grandmother who moves in to help look after Susie's siblings, but then promptly disappears into the background for the rest of the film. Susie's would-be boyfriend and one of her classmates play minor roles, but from some oddly prominent details suggest that they once had considerably larger ones.

The only other character that really receives his due is the murderer, George Harvey. Susie's post-mortem attentions become focused on her family's attempts to unmask him, so he gets far more screen time than anyone else. Stanley Tucci gives him a great understated menace, with a veneer of sad-sack suburban schlepper that easily draws in the audience's sympathies until the claws come out. But, without giving anything away, like so many of the other elements of "The Lovely Bones," he doesn't quite fit the usual template of villainy that the plot keeps trying to shoehorn him into, and the ultimate resolution of his part of the story is inevitably unsatisfying. It's a terrible waste of a good performance.

"The Lovely Bones" shows every indication of being a production that got away from the director. From the size of the budget and the expenditure of so much effort on visual effects and other distractions, I suspect that this was a film that was expected to fit a certain mold and attract a certain kind of audience, and steps were taken to ensure that those expectations would be met, no matter if they were actually appropriate to the material or not. The end result is a film about the brutal murder of a teenage girl and its aftermath, that has been sanitized and gilded over to the point where only teenage girls would likely enjoy it.

I don't think it's necessary for a film tackling such heavy subject matter to be as dark and explicit about its horrors as others have been, but here the blow was softened far too much. We have only the barest intimations about the particulars of the crime, and a cast of characters who seem too fragile to confront the truth as a result. The Salmon family is troubled, but lack texture and grounding in reality. Susie herself is naively innocent to the point of saintliness, and it's only Saoirse Ronan's efforts that keep her from being insufferable. And then the story ties itself in knots to try and give the audience a conventional narrative to follow, only to sabotage itself with an ending that's nothing of the sort.

A better template for "The Lovely Bones," would have been Jackson's own pitch-perfect "Heavenly Creatures," a film that was a little darker, a little stranger, and used its fantasy sequences with far more restraint. That Peter Jackson might have turned out a decent "Lovely Bones." I shudder to think of what the current "Peter Jackson" would have done to "Heavenly Creatures."

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