Peter Jackson's head must have been spinning as he read Alice Sebold's disturbing if obvious novel, "The Lovely Bones." After viewing the film version, we'd guess that the novel brought many a fantastical set piece to the filmmaker's vision. The otherworld of the novel's dead girl, Susie Salmon, suggests all sorts of whims: trees bursting into full growth, a field molting into an ocean, her childhood home just barely perceived through her ghostly world.
We can see that the set pieces have overwhelmed the project. The story of Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) and her family's attempt to find her killer – the mid-forties bachelor down the street, of course – plays like an afterthought in Jackson's approach. Salmon's magical purgatory doesnt' evolve, but just exists - one set piece merely pours into another. The earth-based narrative is a revised avenger yarn. True to the source novel, we know Susie's killer was George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), since the point of view is the dead girl's. Mark Wahlberg, as Salmon's dad, is all widened eyes and flaring nostrils – while obsessing over his next blue screen with Ronan, Jackson holds Wahlberg in shallow poses. Saradon has her weakest role since "Stepmom," now as a hip grandma who moves in to help the family. Still, Rachel Weisz has the stalest pose of them all, since the narrative has her weakened like a chick in an early Romero flick. Yet still we wonder why this fine performer has settled for a role of next to nothing. One bright moment is when Susie watches her little sister, as she progresses to the experiences the an innocent Susie, just 14, never reached. Even a distracted Jackson couldn't miss such a fine moment from the novel.
Sebold's tale is most interesting when read as a metaphor for the author's rape and coping (the real story of which was told in her memoir, "Lucky"). Yet, the conceit on film leads toward hazy premonitions and communication from the beyond the grave - stuff on the level of the 1990 Patrick Swayze-Demi Moore film, "Ghost." The fact that Jackson was already subverting another genre by this time, i.e. the horror film, makes it all the more regretful that he's mimicking ghost story and revenger cliches. One plus the other equals zero here, not to mention that he already delivered a revisionary ghost story, and now a minor classic of the genre, with “The Frighteners.” "The Lovely Bones" makes us look back to its creator's fine career, and we realize that Jackson's newest is his worst.
"The Lovely Bones"
2009, Rated PG-13, 135 min.
Directed by Peter Jackson; starring Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Saoirse Ronan, Susan Sarandon, and Stanley Tucci
Released by Paramount Pictures