Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Lovely Bones: Broken

The Lovely Bones (2009) • View trailer for The Lovely Bones
2.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity and a very grim storyline
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.21.10
Buy DVD: The Lovely Bones • Buy Blu-Ray: The Lovely Bones (Two-Disc Special Edition) [Blu-ray]

Likening herself to a snapshot  a moment frozen in time  young Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), during her concluding voice-over in The Lovely Bones, laments that she was here but for a moment ... and then gone.

If only the same could be said of the film itself.
Susie (Saoirse Ronan) enjoys helping her father (Mark Wahlberg) with his
hobby of building ships in bottles, even as she playfully teases him about it;
he describes the way in which such a painstaking hobby instills the discipline
of seeing things through, and -- waving a hand vaguely toward shelves filled
with bottled tiny ships -- promises that "One day, all this will be yours."
His daughter, with a horrified glance, can't be sure it's a promise or a threat...

Director Peter Jackson's adaptation of Alice Sebold's grim novel  which Jackson scripted with longtime collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens  is a dull, dreary and dispiriting slog. It feels like a self-indulgent vanity project that got entirely out of hand. Jackson obviously wanted to make portentous statements about death and the despair of a human soul left with no means to take care of unfinished business ... but all this gets lost amid leaden pacing, irritating plot points and monotonous, hippy-trippy images of the afterlife.

Seeing this film immediately on the heels of Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus made for an interesting comparison. Both films are a mess, in different ways, but Gilliam's chaotic dreamscapes at least have the benefit of being relevant to his storyline. The luxurious realms in which Susie finds herself trapped, in great contrast, pointlessly interrupt the flow of a (potentially) more interesting narrative.

I'm reminded of old-style movie musicals, where the actors would break away from a dramatic moment, often quite jarringly, in order to launch into a song. You'll get just as irritated here, each time Jackson cuts to Susie's fixation with the same damned gazebo.

And it's a shame, because The Lovely Bones begins well. We're fully involved with these characters up to the moment Susie's life is snuffed, and quite horribly; things fall apart only later  and this is the bulk of the overlong 135-minute film  when the girl refuses to "move on," preferring instead to find out to what degree she can, or should, hang around and attempt to influence matters back in the mortal world.

The time is 1973, quite deliberately, at a moment in small-town America when the lingering naive trust fostered by the 1960s flower-power movement hadn't yet yielded to a growing awareness of clandestine serial killers and sexual predators. Susie is the eldest of three children  along with sister Lindsay (Rose McIver) and little brother Buckley (Christian Thomas Ashdale)  in a loving family headed by Abigail (Rachel Weisz) and Jack (Mark Wahlberg), an accountant who enjoys the delicacy of making ships in bottles.

They're a happy, boisterous, perfectly average family unit, and Susie's biggest concern is whether a cute boy at school will notice her.

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, Susie is watched, and much too intently, by George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), a friendly loner whose behavior behind closed doors is oddly regimented by alarm clocks. Like Jack, George has a craftsman's meticulous dedication to perfection; he builds impeccably designed dollhouses, complete with furniture, fixtures ... and doors leading to darkened, unseen cellars.

Tucci is macabre and chillingly creepy: "skeevy," to use this movie's word of choice. It's a breathtaking performance, and every bit as memorably unsettling as the woeful sex offender played by Jackie Earle Haley in 2006's Little Children, or Kevin Bacon's heart-stopping starring role in 2004's The Woodsman. These are not one-dimensional, one-note monsters who make it easy for us to hate them; they're carefully layered individuals, capable of eliciting warmth or sympathy, who are nonetheless bent in a way that signals grave danger.

Tucci's George, tragically, has no redeeming qualities beneath his affable exterior. His fateful encounter with Susie, in a fort built beneath a local cornfield, and thereby designed to seem way-cool to a teen, ends badly ... and, mercifully, off-camera.

Susie never comes home. And while the police very quickly uncover evidence of foul play, her body isn't found.

Jack, Abigail and Lindsay are left to cope; Jack and Abigail don't handle it well. Lindsay does, and in unexpected ways; this film would be much better if McIver and her character had been given more screen time.

Instead, we waste far too much time while Susie dithers about in a not-quite-heavenscape constructed by her imagination, anger and fear. It only gets more oblique with the arrival of another young girl, Holly (Nikki SooHoo), who seems to understand this realm but, instead of explaining it plainly to Susie (and us), solemnly gives vague, fortune-cookie warnings.

Perhaps more than anything else, this speaks to the film's greatest problem: performances that often don't feel right, and therefore can't justify behavior that also doesn't seem reasonable.

Michael Imperioli, who plays the police detective  as just one example  never quite escapes the smug superiority of the role he had for so many years on The Sopranos.

Needless to say, that reading is utterly wrong here.

Susan Sarandon co-stars as Abigail's mother, dubbed Grandma Lynn, and she's used solely as jaw-dropping comic relief: a human cartoon who smokes too much, drinks too much and  when placed in charge of the household, immediately following Susie's disappearance  does her best to burn the place down. I don't care how bereaved Abigail and Jack have become; they'd never make this walking disaster area responsible for their remaining two children.

Weisz, who has demonstrated considerable subtlety in many other parts, never gets a handle on Abigail. We therefore can't understand what motivates her behavior in the second act: a reaction so extreme that it's simply daft.

A local high school kid indulges in a violent assault at one point: an incident also carried to ridiculous extremes. Even George, repeatedly shown to be such a careful planner, uncharacteristically fails to take advantage of an easy opportunity, late in the game, to eliminate a troublesome pest.

This script's most laughable betrayal, however, concerns the brooding, dark-garbed teenage girl who is "sensitive" and therefore "sees" Susie's spirit, as it flees in panic from that fateful underground encounter with George. We can't help expecting a significant payoff from this other young woman, given her talent, but instead we wind up with a wholly inappropriate riff on 1990's Ghost.

At that moment, having wanted to several times already, I completely checked out.

I simply didn't care any more.

And that's a shame. The Lovely Bones has some memorable moments, none better than the build-up to horror in that underground fort, as Susie gradually realizes that she has placed herself in mortal danger; the girl's growing terror  and George's increasing excitement  are palpable. Here, at least, Ronan reminds us of the excellent work she did in Atonement.

Similarly, Jackson gets plenty of juice from a much later scene, when Lindsay decides to take matters into her own hands; the resulting sequence is edge-of-the-seat suspenseful.

Numerous people have complained about the degree to which Jackson "softened" Sebold's book; there's little evidence in this film, for starters, that George rapes Susie before he kills her, and we're left to imagine what he does with the body.

I'm not suggesting that the underground sequence should have continued even one second longer, and in fact the power of suggestion can be much stronger anyway. But this tendency to minimize the story's grim reality is symptomatic of Jackson's overall problem: his fixation on colorful astral plains  and Ronan's increasingly maudlin voice-overs  at the expense of more rigorous attention to real-world detail and character motivation.

Director Vincent Ward had the same problem with his 1998 adaptation of Richard Matheson's What Dreams May Come, which also spent too much time in a Dali-esque afterlife of Robin Williams' own design. Special-effects are supposed to serve the story, not the other way 'round.

And these Bones, alas, are far from lovely.

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