Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Lovely Bones

Peter Jackson's screen adaptation of Alice Sebold's supernatural suspense novel "The Lovely Bones" ends with a moral plot twist of sorts. Don't be too hard on yourself if you missed it. After 2 hours of watching Jackson stumble about in this ethereal, clunky mess of a movie, his protagonist's last minute afterlife epiphany (which we'll come back to) becomes irrelevant and silly. Having not read Ms Sebold's novel before viewing the film, it's difficult to discern whether or not Jackson's problem was the source material. Seeing that he acquired the movie rights shortly after reading it coupled with Jackson's obsession with staying true to the author's vision makes me assume that his film is an accurate representation of the book.

The problem with The Lovely Bones is that like so many other films, it is trying to do too many things at once, and is unsuccessful at doing any one of them particularly well. Jackson tried to use elements of European surrealism and new age spirituality as the backdrop for an American supernatural crime thriller. These elements certainly could have worked, but Jackson seemed incapable of tying them together, or even making any of them all that interesting.

As other critics have pointed out, the film starts out promisingly, as the film's protagonist, Susie Salmon, played by the exceptional young actress Saoirse Ronan, narrates from beyond the grave the days leading up to her abduction and murder - and it proves to be very effective. Susie is both wise and witty, and the movie captures the feeling and imagery of the early '70's - the set design, wardrobe, album covers, and other knick knacks are sheer perfection, and the ambiance is further accentuated by Susie's monologue;

"It was 1973, a time when people believed things like that didn't happen."

By "things like that", Susie is referring to her abduction (technically she's lured) and brutal murder by serial killer George Harvey, played with eerie perfection by the immensely talented Stanley Tucci. By this point we instinctively know that Susie will try to contact her grieving father, Jack Salmon (Mark Wahlberg), to comfort him and to exact justice for her and her family. It's far from an original scenario, but Jackson has us captivated. Unfortunately, the momentum he has built comes to an almost grinding halt and disintegrates into a complete and dismal failure.

The first hint of trouble (with the movie) occurs right before Susie's murder, when she and her budding love interest Ray Singh (played by the grossly untalented Reece Ritchie) have an intense emotional encounter after leaving a movie review club. Their brief flirtatious moment at Susie's locker is painfully hokey and unbelievable. It's meant to evoke a strong emotional response from us, as Susie previously informs us that she will never live to experience her first kiss. Earlier in the movie, we are shown that Ray and Susie have but a passing acquaintanceship with a mutual crush (at best). Now, suddenly, they are speaking to each other like Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

After the murder, several essential plot devices are used rather sparsely, as Jackson seems more interested in showing off the CGI-created-Microsoft-screen-saver-heaven (or limbo) that he has created for Susie than in character and story development. Jack's grief and obsession to find Susie's killer leads to the disintegration of his family, but this is assumed and never really explored. When Jack's wife leaves the family home, we never have any clear picture of the lengths to which Jack's obsession consume him. We know that he starts his own investigation of his neighbours' credit reports and pesters the detective assigned to his daughter's murder, but we're never left with the sense that Jack has gone over the fence.

No one seems interested in delving into how combustible the family unit has become, but things surely must be bad, because Susie's wise cracking, chain smoking, alcoholic Grandma Lynn (wonderfully played by Susan Sarandon) is called in to save the day and restore order. Well, if by order you mean a bizarre 2 minute montage of Sarandon doing household chores to the beat of "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress". Aside from a brief conversation with Susie's brother, Grandma Lynn's only purpose - outside of the snappy montage - is to stand with a look a of worldly wisdom at various pivotal moments (speaking of bizarre montages, there a doozy of one in Susie's CGI heaven where she and her spirit guide Holly do a psychedelic dance in a circle as their clothes change to show the passing of time - grooovy).

Again, one of the fundamental flaws of the film is the failure to use key plot elements to effectively relay the story. Early on in the film, Susie is chastised for using up all 12 rolls of film her parents had given as a gift with a camera for her birthday. Jack agrees with his wife's reluctant approval to allow her to develop one roll of film per month. After her death, Jack decides to keep his promise and begins to develop the film rolls at monthly intervals. Good story telling would have our father hero being shown bits of a puzzle unravelling as each roll of film is developed. Instead we get a couple of scenes showing Jack making an important connection, but only with the other-worldly aid of his non-corporeal daughter. It would have been exciting to see Jack rushing to the photo shop, tearing open envelopes, trying to piece together the clues his daughter had unwittingly left behind for her father to find.

Wahlberg, like Tucci, is given little to work with and must make do with the scant, heavy-handed dialogue. There is so little character development that when Jack finally confronts his daughter's killer, there is no real sense of dramatic tension. Everything leading up to the scene is so poorly written that this pivotal moment is as flat as warm soda - and it's a shame. Tucci is positively creepy, and Walhberg, despite some less than glowing reviews, is excellent as an easy-going, all American blue collar dad. In fact, most all of the central cast were phenomenal, but anyone in a supporting role were so abysmal it seemed like they were picked from a supermarket and told to wing it.

Then there's Susie's peculiar limbo, where she walks through dreamy Salvador Dali-like landscapes inundated with imagery that never manages to transition smoothly into the real world inhabited by her killer. It reminds me of an early Simpon's episode when the producers of the show place Homer in a CGI world for close to a minute, and he says and does nothing beyond quip about how expensive everything looks. Jackson's 'Bones' breaks no more new ground artistically than Gothika did over seven years ago.


But now we come to the real dilemma of the film - what we in the biz call the movie's "central fallacy". As Susie wanders through her own fantasy world and George Harvey's real world begins to unravel, she is finally shown the location of all of Harvey's victims and the destruction he has left in their wake. As Harvey throws the rusted safe containing Susie's body into a pit that's soon to be filled in - forever obscuring her final remains - we think that the killer is about to get his comeuppance, that Susie will finally get justice for herself, and bring peace to the families of the other victims by using her supernatural gifts to reveal the locations of their bodies.

Not really.

This is where an already weird movie takes an even weirder turn into the realm of bizarre new age spirituality. As Ray and Susie's quasi-psychic friend Ruth look on from an abandoned building while the lecherous Harvey disposes of Susie's remains (oddly doing nothing to stop it or alert authorities), Susie possesses Ruth's body to finally steal that last kiss she never got from Ray. Oddly, after Susie has her last moment of earthly bliss, leaving Ruth's body, neither teenager feels it necessary to...oh, I don't know, ALERT AUTHORITIES.

Susie's family is finally reconciled once her killer has been exposed (but is on the run), and she is finally persuaded by her irritating spiritual guide Holly to leave this mystical nether world and move on to heaven. Instead of staying to use her ability to reach into the earthly world to bring closure to all, Holly persuades her that she must move on so that she may be happy in heaven and her family happy on earth - but that doesn't make any sense at all. There is no ultimatum given to Susie forcing her to choose between staying behind to right the wrongs in the world she departed, or leave so that her soul may enjoy peace in heaven. It seems she could have done all of these things before moving on, and, if she can't, we are offered no explanation as to why. The movie seems to have the temerity to suggest that 14 year old Susie and the the people that love her are happier and more enriched because of her murder.

There is justice of a sort given to Susie's killer. Later that winter he is struck by a falling icicle, causing him to slip down a cliff to his death, taking with him the secrets of where so many of his victims are buried (the icicle actually melts at it's base causing it to fall, as Jackson seems obsessed with water imagery throughout the movie). It is an unsatisfactory sort of justice, and perhaps would have been more palatable had the movie tried to make the point that the world is sometimes an unfair place where evil men go unpunished and good people are left to suffer. The movie's moral message is so convoluted it prompted film critic Roger Ebert to declare;

"The Lovely Bones is a deplorable film with this message: If you're a 14-year-old girl who has been brutally raped and murdered by a serial killer, you have a lot to look forward to. You can get together in heaven with the other teenage victims of the same killer, and gaze down in benevolence upon your family members as they mourn you and realize what a wonderful person you were."

I couldn't have said it better myself. This movie is a muddled mess with a bizarre moral smugness that defies reason. Don't bother with this one.



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