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Friday, Jan. 29, 2010
'The Lovely Bones'
A provocative reminiscence from eternity
Director Peter Jackson's latest, "The Lovely Bones," has been out in the United States for a while now, and the critics have been pretty merciless. It relies too much on special effects, it lacks key elements of the novel it's based on (Alice Sebold's best seller), some of the performances fail to connect . . . the charges go on and on, and it almost seems like buyer's remorse from the very same people who overhyped Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy while overlooking these same flaws.
Yes, "The Lovely Bones" is an imperfect film, but the reason the missteps are so jarring is because for most of the time, Jackson weaves an intoxicating spell — mixing suspense, wistful melancholy and mystical magic realism. He attempts to return to the girly-gothic style of his prefame arthouse hit, "Heavenly Creatures," but without leaving behind the popcorn CGI spectacle that he's now known for, and the tension between these two aims is never entirely resolved.
"My name is Salmon, like the fish. First name, Susie. I was 14 years old when I was murdered on December 6th, 1973." With these matter-of-fact lines, "The Lovely Bones" jumps right into its story of a girl looking back from the afterlife on her last days and their aftermath. It's a moving film about loss and memory, with girly innocence stuffed up against the tragedy of unexpected death, all combined with specific nostalgia for a moment in time (the early '70s).
This is all rather similar to Sofia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides," but unlike that film, "The Lovely Bones" takes a step beyond pondering the mystery of death to actually depicting a limbo between this world and the next. There Susie's restless soul tosses and turns, awaiting the resolution that she didn't get in her short life.
Visual depictions of heaven can often veer into the ridiculous — see Robin Williams in "What Dreams May Come" (1998) — and Jackson does indulge in some florid CGI work, but his wisest decision was to keep the shifting, surreal dreamscapes based in elements arising from Susie's subconscious. (And the shimmering, ethereal soundtrack by Brian Eno and vocalist Liz Fraser evokes the next world even better than the visuals do.)
Key to the film is a remarkable performance from Saoirse Ronan ("Atonement") as Susie, a budding teen whose life just seems to be starting — with a newfound love of photography and her first crush — when it's brutally snuffed out. It's a difficult role: Susie looks back at her last memories with fondness, while also suffering intensely from the anguish she sees her family going through after her death, and the fact that her killer still prowls her neighborhood. Ronan handles it all with ease though, and a natural openness to the camera that elicits intense empathy from the viewer.
Just as good is a truly creepy performance from Stanley Tucci as the perv who stalks Susie; there's not a trace of serial-killer cliche in his character, and it's all the more real — and hence disturbing — for it. Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz are convincingly heartbroken as Susie's grieving parents, whose marriage hits the rocks over the futile search for some sort of closure.
The big speed bump here is Susan Sarandon, who's not bad as Susie's chain-smoking, alcoholic grandmom, but Jackson shifts gears to comedy rather clunkily when she's on-screen. (Though the need to provide some relief from the film's grimmer moments is apparent.) Worse is Reece Ritchie as Susie's classmate and would-be flame; he plays this suburban junior-high kid with an overly fussy and theatrical elocution, like he just stepped off the set of "Hamlet."
Like I said, it's not a perfect film. But death is so common in cinema these days, and so often treated as a sick joke of no consequence ("Inglourious Basterds," anyone?), that there's much to admire in a film that insists this one girl, this one death, matters. What does death do to a family? How many stories are left unfinished, permanently, by it? Does the spirit linger — as shamanism has long insisted — when a life is unjustly cut short? Will karma sort it all out in the end? "The Lovely Bones" will leave these questions echoing in your head.
The one thing I can tell you about this film is do not, repeat, NOT watch the trailer, which contains more spoilers than you can shake a stick at. It's so eager to pimp the film's exciting bits, that it cares little about revealing things like, well, who murdered Susie and who discovers the killer's identity. Unbelievably short-sighted.