Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review: The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones
***/****

I'll just go ahead and say it: The Lovely Bones should have been better. It draws from wonderful, sincerely affecting source material, it features an incredibly talented cast, and boasts the work of a wonderful technical crew. So how did this film seem so...unfullfilling? Sadly, I have no choice but to lay most of the blame on Peter Jackson. Though, I suppose if one has the balls to write, direct, and produce a film, one must be prepared to shoulder the burden if the film fails. Because, really, who else is there to blame?
The Lovely Bones attempts to tackle life, death, and everything that comes after. Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan, of Atonement fame) seems destined for a bright future, until her hopes and dreams are swiftly and cruelly ended by neighborhood serial killer George Harvey (Stanley Tucci). The film follows her grieving family (featuring Rachel Weisz and Mark Wahlberg as mom and dad) and killer on Earth, as well as attempting to create an afterlife for Susie.
There is such great material here, but the film fails to take advantage of it from the first step onward. My first issue is the script. The book, written by Alice Sebold, is chock-full of complexities, unafraid to shy away from the harsh realities of death and grief, and unwilling to whitewash its protagonists. Now, let me get this straight: I'm not one of the people who thinks that Jackson should have shown the murder in graphic detail (for those of you who don't know, Jackson caught some crap for refusing to show the rape/murder of a fourteen year old girl on screen). The scene is horrific enough in the book; filming it truthfully would have been impossible. Instead, I applaud Jackson for his decency and faith in the audience. No, what bugs me is what else he doesn't show: as mentioned before, the book is full of complexities regarding what grief drives people to do, how children manage to cope when their parents aren't, sexuality and smallmindedness, and the sad reality that out-of-sight-out-of-mind applies to the dead, as well. Instead, the script attempts to turn the story into a whodunit crime story, laced with supernatural elements and, of all things, screwball comedy. Seriously. I'm not sure who thought of the idea, but this film is going to win every award in the "worst use of Susan Sarandon in a cleaning montage" category. The Lovely Bones is incredibly uneven, tonally speaking, and, as such, keeps the emotionally honest moments (of which there are many) from gaining too much traction.
The cast, in general, puts on a great show. Most notable is the fantastically talented young actress Saoirse Ronan. In Atonement, she found a breakthrough role that earned her an Oscar nomination at the age of fifteen. In The Lovely Bones, she proves that she isn't a one hit wonder. Instead, Ronan shows that her gifts have only deepened and improved considerably in the past two years. It's a fantastic performance, given what she has to work with. Rachel Weisz also works wonders with her underwritten and undervalued part. Her grieving mother is instantly believable and heartbreaking. Hell, even Susan Sarandon turns Grandma Lynn, who is written as a terrible caricature, into an almost three-dimensional person. Unfortunately, the men in the cast don't fare as well. Stanley Tucci has received multiple accolades for his performance, but I, for one, saw nothing incredibly special. Tucci is appropriately chilling, and more than a little creepy, but that's it. We've seen serial killer before. It's a good performance, but nothing groundbreaking. Likewise, Mark Wahlberg struggles with the largest adult character in the film. Sure, Marky Mark ain't bad, but he just doesn't have the dramatic chops to tackle this role yet.
As I said earlier, the technical crew is spectacular, and their efforts shine through well. I'm particularly fond of Andrew Lesnie's impressionistic cinematography, though the set design, makeup, and visual effects are all properly otherworldly as well. My only complaint on this front concerns the original score by U2 producer Brian Eno. Eno's score has some beautiful themes, and is full of wonderfully resonant music, but every now and again, he throws in some sort of ridiculous freestyle guitar that, while at home with U2, completely destroys any scene it occupies.
The Lovely Bones isn't a bad movie. Indeed, it has many great moments (the scenes in which Susie's parents are first informed that their daughter wasn't found, or the moment where Susie meets all the other girls Harvey killed are particularly affecting), but the film itself is undermined by an overly simplistic take on the story, and a surprisingly inept directorial turn. This film had the potential to be great, but it sure didn't capitalize on it.

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