Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"The Lovely Bones" - REVIEW

Contrary to general consensus, Peter Jackson's adaptation of Alice Sebold's novel, "The Lovely Bones", is not a disaster. What it is, is a disheveled, unfocused film with a good, perhaps even great film buried inside.
The film is the story of 14 year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan of Atonement), who is murdered one day on her way home from school. The murderer: neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci). The problem: The only people who know about Harvey's role in Susie's murder are Susie herself, and the audience. Susie somewhat watches down and narrates the several years that follow her murder from a strange place between earth and heaven (such a place was not in the book; Susie merely narrated from some vague purgatory). It's here where the problems begin, and good lord there are problems. The in-between land where Susie spends most of the film, despite being occasionally mesmerizing, beautiful, and/or intense, often feels superfluous, even if it does give Ronan more to do than sit and narrate. It also introduces a small but irritating character named Holly, who I won't describe because seeing her in the film is painful enough (not the character herself, perse, but her dialogue and the actress who plays her). She's not the only one: Mark Wahlberg as Susie's father feels totally miscast (the original choice was Ryan Gosling) with his line delivery in too high a pitch and a distracting "look at me I'm acting" expression that calls to mind his performance in The Happening (for those who haven't seen that film, that is NOT a compliment). Susan Sarandon is fine as a boozing, smoking grandmother, but her character is mostly used to odd effect, particularly in a scene where she cleans (or tries to clean) the Salmon house while the parents are away (presented in one of the most bizarre, inappropriately jovial montages I've seen in a while). I understand the desire to inject a little levity into the otherwise dour and intense proceedings, but there's a limit. Rachel Weisz, as Susie's mother, gets stuck with a totally thankless role, as does Christian Ashdale as her spiritually "gifted" (?) little brother. Of the Salmon clan still among the living, only Rose Mclver, as Susie's sister Lindsey, gets anything of interest to do, and does a fine job with what she has (plot-forwarding table scraps). This brings us to the final two puzzle pieces: Ronan and Tucci. Much has been made of Tucci's role (he was the only part of the film to ever have strong pre-release buzz), and it could have been a masterful performance, but on the whole the role is characterized more by creepy shots and moody lighting/editing; Jackson's attempts at "showing" somehow come off more as "telling". Tucci does shine a little in the unbearably tense build up to Susie's murder, though again, much of it is also due to the lighting and editing. Ronan is in a slightly different boat. She gets plenty to do in her pseudo-heaven, but due to the rest of the film, bizarre tonal shifts and all, the performance feels like a promise of greatness, instead of actual greatness. She gets the emotions down, but thanks to the overabundance of visual effects wizardry feels distant.
That said, the film does have its small pleasures; enough to make me believe that had Jackson simply picked one tone and stuck with it, he could have had a brilliant film. Like I said, the build up to Susie's murder is really intense, as is a heaven sequence where she's wanders into a mysterious white bathroom, with Tucci lying naked in a bathtub like some monster waiting under a bridge (I was briefly reminded of the Pale Man sequence in Pan's Labyrinth). The visual effects for the most part are dazzling, like in a scene where Susie runs along a beach filled with ships crashing onto the shore. There's also Brian Eno's score...well, most of it. It's very atmospheric and at times haunting, mesmerizing even, but in a handful of scenes it wanders astray, like when Wahlberg is accidentally mistaken for someone else and attacked, the speakers suddenly pour out electric guitar music that is both ugly and distracting.
So where does that leave us at the end of the day? A really strange place, is where. Jackson knows how to command your attention, but what he gives us is too inconsistent, too scatterbrained, to fully resonate, in addition to doing a disservice to the actors involved. The film itself may be beautiful to look at, but at its core The Lovely Bones is really just a mess in need of a clearer vision.

Grade: C

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