Before 2001, few people knew of the now famous Peter Jackson. Before landing the gig of a lifetime with The Lord of the Rings movies, he had dabbled mainly in comedy/horror films with Bad Taste, the Michael J. Fox starring The Frighteners, and one of my personal favorites Dead Alive (known as Braindead in other areas of the world). Since then, what with The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the highly lauded 2005 King Kong remake, Jackson has proven himself to be a real talent in Hollywood. So imagine my disappointment after watching The Lovely Bones, a mediocre, pretentious effort from one of cinema's most prized directors. It's been quite a while since I've seen a movie with such an impressive resume that has failed to create any type of emotional resonance or meaning.
The film begins in 1973 and is about Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), a 14 year old girl who gets murdered by George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) one day on her walk back home from school. Susie ends up in a purgatory type of world, which her brother dubs "the in between" after seeing her in his room one night. You see, her family, particularly her father, can still sometimes see her or at least get a message that she is still around, like through a flickering candle for instance. In the in between world, she meets up with another girl named Holly (Nikki SooHoo) who explains that she can pass over whenever she likes, but she must leave her old world behind her. She decides she isn't yet ready and watches her parents, as well as her killer, as they try to unravel the mystery back in the world of the living.
There's a lot going on in The Lovely Bones. There are themes of love, death, tragedy, murder, the afterlife, divine intervention, the break-up of a family, and more, but none of them ever seem to fully come together into a cohesive whole. They are explored, but only by themselves, never together. None of the themes ever run their courses into one giant metaphor on life or death. They're just there.
This is a movie that assumes there is an afterlife. It never truly questions what happens after you die, which comes as a disappointment. Quite simply, one minute you're here, the next you're not and you're on your final journey on your way to the afterlife. Susie talks of "my heaven," but as far as I could tell, this heaven had no god or supreme being to rule over it. The film never questions the implications of what would happen if you died and there was an afterlife, but nobody was there to rule it. I felt like it had plenty of opportunities to really get into why death is such a mystery, but it spends the majority of its time on Earth going through the motions of a routine murder mystery.
The Lovely Bones is an unstructured movie where years go by with little to no indication, which comes off as confusing because Susie does not age in the afterlife, but everything goes on as it would normally on Earth. Its plot turns come off as insignificant, as evidenced by a scene midway through where the Salmon mother, played by Rachel Weisz, leaves the family out of grief and doesn't return until late in the movie. There's even a montage that occurs after Susie's death that is played for laughs that feels like it should be placed in the next Austin Powers movie, not in the serious nature of this film.
Then you have the acting, which is uniformly unimpressive. Mark Wahlberg is poor, Rachel Weisz, a usually reliable actress, seems to be phoning it in and little Susie Salmon as played by Saoirse Ronan is adequate, but hardly compelling. The poor acting correlates with the sometimes laughable story because none of it feels authentic. There's a ridiculous love connection that sparks up between Susie and Ray, played by Reece Ritchie, that plays like a deleted scene from Twilight due to the long awkward stares and a piano tune that sounds ripped from NBC's "The More You Know" PSA's.
After my screening of The Lovely Bones, I inadvertently heard another critic comment that the film had the "style over substance" school of thought. That person couldn't be more right. This is all style and no substance. Jackson is a great director, but his approach to this film seems extravagant simply for the sake of it. It worked in King Kong and Lord of the Rings, but the difference is that this material doesn't always necessarily call for it, yet it's bumped up to 11. It becomes a major distraction.
Though not devoid of all positive qualities (Stanley Tucci is terrific and there's a truly heart pounding chase scene in the back half of the movie), The Lovely Bones nevertheless feels manufactured not out of love, but labor and its ending is anti-climactic and unfulfilling. Don't expect this one to win best picture kiddos.
The Lovely Bones receives 1.5/5