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The Lovely Bones

A Bad Break

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Peter Jackson (King Kong, The Lord of the Rings trilogy), eager to take a break from the big-budget spectacle that won him commercial success and critical acclaim, turned to Alice Sebold’s 2002 bestselling novel, The Lovely Bones, for his current project.

Paramount Studios pushed back the release date from March to December so the film could qualify for year-end critics awards and, of course, the Academy Awards in the spring. Unfortunately, Jackson and the studio were wildly optimistic about The Lovely Bones as Oscar bait or as commercial art. It’s neither.

Set, like the novel, in 1973, The Lovely Bones follows 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), the events leading to her murder by her neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), and the emotional consequences of her death on her family — her grieving parents, Jack (Mark Wahlberg) and Abigail (Rachel Weisz), her younger sister, Lindsey (Rose McIver), and her brother, Buckley (Christian Thomas Ashdale).

A sympathetic detective, Len Fenerman (Michael Imperioli), attempts to find Susie’s killer, but the investigation grows cold after they find Susie’s cap and evidence of a violent struggle. Susie’s hard-drinking, chain-smoking, pill-popping grandmother, Lynn (Susan Sarandon), steps in to help with household chores and impromptu grief counseling.

Susie’s story, however, doesn’t end with her death. Unwilling to move on, she hovers in an “in-between” state (between heaven and hell, presumably), where she meets another girl, Holly (Nikki SooHoo), who becomes her friend and guide.

From her ghostly vantage point, Susie watches over her family. Her father, overcome with grief, refuses to move on (like Susie), and becomes obsessed with finding Susie’s killer. Her mother retreats into numb despair. Her sister attempts to move on with the semblance of a normal life while her brother claims, like her father, to see Susie. He even identifies her as being in an “in-between” place.

Susie also watches over Ray Singh (Reece Ritchie), a high-school senior and her last infatuation, and Ruth (Carolyn Dando), one of Susie’s classmates with an apparent psychic connection to the dead, specifically Susie. Lindsay and Jack eventually suspect Harvey of Susie’s murder, but the police refuse to continue the investigation.

Given the inherent limitations of a two-hour running time, plot compression is a given. Readers of Sebold’s novel will notice the absence or virtual absence of some characters, the elimination of some subplots and/or character relationships, and, in some cases, significant plot changes. The need to meet the requirements of a PG-13 rating resulted in the softening of ideas and themes Sebold explored in her novel. In some cases (e.g., Susie’s death), her rape is never mentioned, only implied. That change doesn’t make Susie’s murder any less horrific, but it blunts one of Sebold’s key ideas and themes.

Those changes, however questionable, are at least justifiable. What isn’t justifiable, however, was Jackson’s decision to over-use and abuse CGI to depict Susie’s oversaturated afterlife. Jackson pastes Susie into a series of overwrought, over-obvious, unsubtle (and occasionally shoddy-looking) shots of rolling green pastures and other environments. Jackson even includes a tone-deaf montage with Susie imagining herself as a celebrity,complete with magazine cover. While Susie’s afterlife is meant to be a projection of her dreams and desires, fears, and anxieties, a more restrained, understated approach would have better complemented the world Susie left behind.

The Lovely Bones does benefit, however, from a talented cast. Wahlberg, stepping in for Ryan Gosling, who left the production early on, is fine as the grieving father, Jack. As Abigail, Rachel Weisz suffers the most from the truncated running time. Abigail is more a plot device than a character in The Lovely Bones. Given the limitations of the character, it’s difficult to see why Weisz took the role. Here, she’s practically a cipher, defined by her role as wife and mother, then grieving mother and distant, closed-off wife.

Stanley Tucci, in a blonde wig and blue contact lenses, gives a creepy, unsettling performance as Harvey. He’s already received several high-profile nominations for the role. Saoirse Ronan, nominated for her supporting role in Atonement two years ago, elevates an essentially passive role into a character with depth that, despite her premature death, changes and grows into acceptance. She can only get better with additional experience, which she’ll certainly receive based on this performance and Atonement.

Unfortunately, The Lovely Bones fails on almost every other level. It’s overloaded with self-indulgent computer animation and an over-compressed and underwritten storyline, neutered ideas and themes, and awkward, clumsy tonal changes. In short, The Lovely Bones is a creative misfire, if not the first, then the most significant of Jackson’s career. Hopefully, it’ll be the last one.