Living With "The Lovely Bones"

Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson, based on the novel by Alice Sebold
With: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon, Michael Imperioli, Rose McIver and Christian Thomas Ashdale

New Zealander Jackson seemed the perfect director to adapt Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, a story of murder and what comes after that’s narrated by a dead girl trapped in the pretty prison of an afterworld that lies somewhere between where she was and where she’s going.

Think back past the epic Lord of the Rings films to Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, a richly imagined story of two adolescent girls caught in a poisonous plasticine fantasy world conjured from their half-formed fantasies. Perfect!

And yet The Lovely Bones is sadly inert. The story shuttles back and forth between a placid 197
0s suburbia and an afterlife that looks disconcerting like the cover of a Yes album; both are bloodless, all look and no vitality.

14-year-old Susie “like the fish” Salmon (Ronan) dies on December 6, 1973, raped, murdered and dismembered by George Harvey (Tucci), the creepy neighbor every picture-perfect small town and suburb seems to have. It takes her a while to realize what’s happened; briefly baffled, she flees the cornfield where she died and can’t fathom why no one can see or hear her. But once Susie understands and accepts her state — she’s disembodied but stranded somewhere between life and afterlife — she takes a keen interest in the ongoing travails of her family and friends.

Despite the best efforts of local cop Len Fenerman (Imperioli), Susie’s body is never found, though her bedraggled cap — a godforsaken thing knitted by her mother, Abigail (Weisz) — turns up in a nearby field. It becomes gradually, painfully clear that body or no body, Susie is almost certainly dead, though it’s the almost that torments everyone who knew her. Susie’s father, Jack (Wahlberg), is obsessed with finding his little girl’s killer even as he tries to cling to the hope that she’s alive; his fixation eventually drives Abigail to abandon her family and retreat into a soul-searching sojourn on a hippie-dippy commune.

Abigail’s hard-drinking, open-minded mother (Sarandon) tries to step in, but nurturing was clearly never her bag. Susie fades to near abstraction for baby brother Buckley (Ashdale), but Lindsey (McIver), who grew up in Susie’s shadow, is determined to find her sister’s killer… and she has a hunch about Harvey. Susie’s friend Clarissa (Michalka), who sometimes vaguely feels her presence, begins dating Jake (Nelson), the dishy Brit on whom Susie had her first and only crush.

First and foremost, The Lovely Bones rests on Ronan’s shoulders, and she’s more than up to the challenge: Her performance is the single best thing about the film. Ronan overlays the awkwardness of a sheltered teenager with the devastating weariness of someone who knows that all possibility is behind her. Dead Susie is all she’ll ever be, and the only way she can remain connected to her cruelly truncated life is by watching other lives go on.

Unfortunately, Ronan is hemmed in at every turn by the kitschy afterlife in which she’s trapped. It’s perfectly reasonable that Susie’s imagination, which shapes her limbo, would be shaped by kitschy ‘70s design. But the specificity of the movie’s set design drags Sebold’s ethereal in-between world down to earth with a crashing thud; Ronan’s pitch-perfect voice-over narration is regularly undermined by the goofy landscape she inhabits, even if it is populated by other girls murdered by sex fiends, some even younger that Susie. The whole thing recalls the tacky afterlives of 1998’s What Dreams May Come, a simplistic and painfully unconvincing fable about love’s power to overcome all.

Jackson and screenwriters Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh — Walsh is Jackson’s wife and both women are his longtime collaborators — are nothing if not decorous; there’s no salaciousness in Susie’s death and no morbid fascination with the minutia of Harvey’s psychosis. All of which is entirely reasonable: The Lovely Bones isn’t voyeuristic serial-killer porn. But the film’s relentless good taste renders it dull and hollow; Susie might as well be away at summer camp, and that absence of tragic resonance robs the story of its thorny, haunting heart. To hear the voice of a dead teenager, a girl whose life was brutally ended before it had a chance to start, blithely nattering about the day-to-day affairs of the living should fray your last nerve. But even Ronan’s considerable skills can’t trump CGI’s power to render everything false and inconsequential, and more’s the pity.

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