The Lovely Bones (2009) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Lovely Bones (2009)

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Peter Jackson doesn’t misstep often, and while he’s not the auteur (at least these days) that many would like he still knows how to tell a good story.  He tries his damnedest to do this with The Lovely Bones, but his approach is to make the intimate material grander while losing track of anything that gives the audience something to work with.  It's not a good sign when a scene of a hat is more menacing than the entirety of the antagonists screen time.

It’s a shame the results are like this.  He started off his career with Heavenly Creatures, showing that he really knows how to portray young, disenfranchised people intelligently.  But now that he has the clout and budget to do whatever he’s like it seems that touch may be gone.  The Lovely Bones, adapted from the novel by Alice Sebold, is told from the perceptive of Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan).  Early in the story Susie is kidnapped, raped and murdered by one of her neighbors.  The remainder of the story is told from her perspective as she waits in a sort of purgatory for the strength to let go.

The opening scenes of The Lovely Bones seem right at home with an observant family drama, not the supernatural gloom tale that is to come.  Suzy has a great relationship with her parents, seems well liked at school, and has a crush on a boy that is expressed so well in two minutes that it’s hard not to feel a twinge of heartache for the two of them.  Then the film takes the first of many drastic tonal changes as a girl bursts out of art class in trouble because she drew a naked woman.  In one second the movie is a sweet romance, the next second, badly drawn broad comedy.

Then, one day, Ms. Salmon wakes up, has breakfast, and receives a very ominous hat from her mother.  Sure it’s bright and colorful, but as the camera tracks the hat, time slows momentarily and the soundtrack enters the first of many ominous chords.  Bad things are going to happen to this hat.  Or at least the bearer of the hat.

After school Susie and the ominous hat are waylaid by Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci) who invites her to his underground play den.  This play den is, in Mr. Harvey's words, “For the kids”, and looks like it was furnished by especially angry hobbits hell bent on punishing anyone that ventures into their burrow.  It’s here that Susie meets her end and where the movie completely flies off of the rails.

Jackson starts mixing bright, distracting colors on perpetually shifting landscapes for Susie’s afterlife while Earth remains drab, except when Susie is reaching out to them.  The problem with these visuals is that there is no internal logic to them at all.  Susie is walking down mountains, falling into pools of water, facing a sky with a moon clock, flying over the land – all with no unifying purpose or direction.  The only stable element in Susie’s afterlife is the gazebo where she was going to meet her crush, and this slowly turns less stable as time goes on and the body count rises back on Earth.

The film cannot find a stable ground to anchor the shifts between the heavenly and the mortal.  Since there are also multiple story lines going on at home, there is not time to spend making sure that the narrative is flowing consistently from plot point to plot point.  And boy do the actors suffer for this.

Saoirse Ronan is a fantastic actress and was stellar in one of my favorites of 2007, Atonement, and here she’s still good.  But since she’s relegated to a narrator position we really only get to hear her act as she has very little to do.  As her killer, Stanley Tucci tries for a manner of understated creepiness, but the grease that Jackson seems to be piling onto him between every scene makes it incredibly difficult to piece out a subtle performance.  Rachel Weisz, Mark Whalberg and Susan Sarandon round out the parental figures, but don’t really get to do much other than be numb, sad and defiant.

If only the production was scaled back and more effort was made to focus on the relationships, rather than the fantastic, The Lovely Bones might have been worth saving.  But the finished product has little to do with an honest portrayal of grief and is more concerned with confused technicolor landscapes.

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The Lovely Bones (2009)

The Lovely Bones is directed by Peter Jackson.
Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson.
Starring Saoirse Ronan and Stanley Tucci.

Posted by Andrew

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