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Heartbreak Overshadowed by Special Effects in The Lovely Bones

  • Christa Banister Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2010 1 Jan
  • COMMENTS
Heartbreak Overshadowed by Special Effects in <i>The Lovely Bones</i>

DVD Release Date:  April 20, 2010
Theatrical Release Date:  January 15, 2010 (wide)
Rating:  PG-13 (for mature thematic material involving disturbing violent content and images and some language)
Genre:  Drama, Crime, Fantasy, Adaptation
Run Time:  135 min.
Director:  Peter Jackson
Actors:  Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon, Jake Abel, Thomas McCarthy, Michael Imperioli, Amanda Michalka, Reece Ritchie, Andrew James Allen, Rose McIver, Christian Thomas Ashdale, Carolyn Dando

Considering the widespread, read-by-every-book-club-in-America popularity of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, it was certainly a tall order (even for a fantastic, award-winning director like Peter Jackson) to get this story properly adapted for the big screen.

In fact, I'd venture to say it's a virtually impossible task, given that most of The Lovely Bones is the cryptic yet opulent prose that ultimately makes for fascinating literature, but doesn't translate well in movie form. 

Simply put, a movie needs plot, and a compelling one at that. And when the protagonist informs us that she's been murdered in the first few minutes, and we already knew who the killer is, watching the aftermath play out in all its emotionally messy glory (and really, there's not much of that either, thanks to wooden performances from several of the principals, particularly Mark Wahlberg) is basically Chinese water torture.

Well, unless the filmmakers compel us to care, which doesn't happen much here with a story that's really all over the melodramatic map. Not only are the majority of the characters severely underdeveloped (Susie's own mom and dad, for example, are skeletons of real, living breathing humans), but even the villain himself, the monster who not only stole Susie's innocence, but her life, is downright cartoonish. 

After all, it takes more than living alone, the requisite porn-star ‘stache and a few weird hobbies (like building elaborate dollhouses) to explain why a guy would go to such great lengths to lure several young women to their eventual deaths. However, even with little to work with script-wise, Stanley Tucci still does a great job of being menacing (there are a couple of scenes that are downright chilling), but that's really more a credit to his acting than anything else.

Really, the story is trying to be so many things (a whodunit, a primer on the afterlife, a heart-tugging drama) that it doesn't do anything particularly well. And don't even get me going on the cameo from Susan Sarandon as the boozy, chain-smoking grandmother. Never before has a good dose of comic relief been at the expense of a better performer.

Further complicating matters, Susie Salmon (yes, like the fish) is narrating the story in a weird whispery voice that's more unintentionally comical than ghostly, from her own version of heaven known as "the in-between."

For the unacquainted, that's apparently the place for those not quite ready for heaven because they can't leave everything still happening on earth behind. While there are countless theological ramifications that are blatantly obvious to all who believe the Bible's teachings, it's not even a fully fleshed out concept. While it's clear that Susie can see her parents but can't communicate with them, not much else in this new world makes a twitch of sense. It's all flash and little in the way of actual substance, basically the cinematic equivalent of a Twinkie.

Worse yet, is that these empty calories aren't even that appealing—in a guilty pleasure way or otherwise. Essentially a candy-colored, psychedelic mess of wish-fulfillment imagery (yes, Susie and her new friend Holly giggle and get to play dress up in disco-appropriate garb) it actually makes the similar aesthetic employed in Robin Williams' hokey What Dreams May Come look far more sophisticated in comparison. And if you have seen What Dreams May Come, you know that's saying something.

Needless to say, those hoping for glimpses of Jackson's stunning foray into dream-like drama with 1994's Heavenly Creatures will be sorely disappointed in The Lovely Bones. Not only does it lack the book's emotional gravitas, but the choice of garish, Cirque du Soleil visuals end up downplaying the story's real focus: a grieving family who's trying to move forward after the murder of a loved one and anything resembling justice for the young woman herself. And that's quite possibly the greatest crime of all.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  In what essentially serves as the film's comic relief, Grandma Lynn is constantly drinking and chain smoking, which leads to her troubles with housework, etc.
  • Language/Profanity:  A few instances of profanity, plus a couple of times where the Lord's name is misused.
  • Sex/Nudity:  There's a budding romance between Susie and Ray, but nothing more explicit than a shared kiss. In the book version of "The Lovely Bones," the murderer also rapes Susie, but that's glossed over in the movie. 
  • Violence:  The actual murder in question is mostly handled off-screen (we do see a very long scene where he lures her into his underground den and eventually attacks her when she tries to escape), but there are ongoing references to it (and a quick peek at the crime scene on a few occasions) and several disturbing moments involving the murderer, creepy next-door neighbor George Harvey. Jack is also mistakenly hit (many, many times) by a baseball bat in a cornfield (the guy issuing the blows assumed it was Jack that hurt his girlfriend, not George) and eventually recovers from his injuries.

Christa Banister is a full-time freelancer writer, specializing in music, movies and books-related reviews and interviews and is the author of two novels, Around the World in 80 Dates and Blessed Are the Meddlers. Based in St. Paul, Minn., she also weighs in on various aspects of pop culture on her personal blog

For more information, including her upcoming book signings and sample chapters of her novels, check out her Website.