Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Lovely Bones review

Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones," based on a popular novel I have not read by Alice Sebold, tells two parallel stories. In the first, a typical 14-year-old Pennsylvania girl named Susie Salmon (Saorise Ronan) is murdered by a creepy neighbor and finds her spirit in limbo, stuck between the world of the living and Heaven. She watches with the audience as the second story, about the impact of her death on the rest of her family, unfolds. It's a technique that almost assuredly works better in prose than on screen. Any narrator in any work of fiction enters a sort of limbo, if you think about it, perched between the real world (in which they are telling you, the reader, a story) and the make-believe realm in which the story's events take place. So it's probably not very challenging to accept Susie's situation, occupying a magical heavenly afterlife of her own creation while relating events she witnesses on Earth, in print.

In a film, though, the device simply falls apart. Susie's predicament, by its very nature, is internal. We follow her story, and get a sense of her mental turmoil (do you have a mind in limbo?) as she struggles between lingering affection for her old life and a desire to move on to Heaven. But she now lives in an environment and a situation that's almost entirely random and intangible, that seems to operate independent of logic or consequences. Limbo is erratic; rules are established for Susie's life there, but they all seem more or less fluid based on the concerns of the plot. (For example, she tells us that there is no "time" and nothing ever changes, and then later says she has the same dream "every night." How is there an "every night" if there's no time? How does a dead person even dream, anyway?)

Anyway, it's nearly impossible for Jackson to provide this half of the story with any sort of real narrative momentum. The afterlife he depicts is certainly beautiful and imaginative, as relics of Susie's life on Earth (like the "ships in a bottle" she once built with her dad, or the charms from her old bracelet) reappear in impossible or outsized ways. One particularly memorable, decidedly eerie shot sees Susie and a young friend named Holly (Nikki SooHoo) whom we presume has also died, running through a field of grass that's actually its own, tiny, spherical planet. But the Limbo sequences almost never drive the story forward, and none of them really build to a satisfying climax. Susie can have or do anything she wants; if she can imagine it, it will appear before her. That might be nice for a while, but it certainly isn't the sort of conflict that can drive a film.

Perhaps if Jackson were interested in exploring some of the metaphysical and spiritual questions raised by Susie's story, the film's afterlife sequences could have developed more of a sense of purpose. For a vision of the next world that's so aesthetically pleasing, this is also a cruel turn of events for Susie. After being murdered at 14, she's given a chance to communicate and interact with her beloved parents, but then told she's not supposed to. She's provided with horrifying visions of her own killer, informed that he has killed before and will likely kill again, but is completely unable to confront or stall him. Save for some visits from Holly, a stranger who speaks cryptically about the Heaven that awaits her once she agrees to turn her back on her family, Susie is entirely alone. She's even taunted by visions of a boy she once dreamed of kissing (Reece Ritchie), who has now taken up with a different girl, and images of her younger sister getting the first kiss she was denied. And this is where you go if you're bound for HEAVEN! I'd hate to think of what awaits the rest of us.

Considering how much time is spent in Limbo, I wish Jackson had more intellectual curiosity about the place. How can we exist eternally in a state of bliss and perfection if we've retained our human consciousness, our memory and our sense of time? No matter how perfect a world we'd created, wouldn't we still get horribly bored and lonely? How does Susie know about world events that happened after her death, and why does she care? (At one point, she laments that her story took place "before missing kids were printed on milk cartons," but how does she know that would happen? Are there newspapers in Heaven?) I'm not trying to poke holes in the movie, really, but to look at all of the avenues that Jackson and the his script (written along with frequent collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) could have possibly explored to make the scenes of Susie in Heaven more compelling. Instead, they exist mainly to compliment the main story, which follows Susie's family, and which doesn't really need the abstract dead-girl fantasy elements. Susie is at the center of the film, but she comes to feel like little more than a distraction.

The real-world narrative lacks the rich visual majesty of the afterlife scenes, but holds together as drama far more successfully. There's very little here that dozens of other movies haven't already explored - how the death of a child so thoroughly devastates parents and rends families apart, how a lack of closure can prevent people from moving on after a tragic loss, how pain and tragedy can bring people together, how survivors feel guilty that their lives continue after others' have ended - bit it's still undeniably well-executed. Jackson's ease with building tension serve him well, as always, and he and DP Andrew Lesnie create a rural Pennsylvania town that's both believably real and strikingly impressionistic. (I hope no children are currently growing up right behind a cornfield this sinister.)

Susie's entire family is, of course, devastated by the loss of one of their own, but none seem to take it quite as hard as her father, Jack (a solid, understated Mark Wahlberg). His obsessive need to find Susie's killer and punish him drives away his fragile wife, Abigail (Rachel Weisz) and frustrates the detective assigned to the case (Michael Imperioli). His investigation eventually leads him to George Harvey (Tucci), an eccentric loner who lives a few doors down, and spends his days in his basement, building doll houses. Tucci completely disappears into the guarded, quick-tempered Harvey. It's a chilling performance that's probably a bit TOO convincing; this guy's such a creep, it's hard to believe he wouldn't be everyone's prime suspect. (If Christoph Waltz weren't such a revelation in "Inglourious Basterds," I'd probably be behind Tucci for Best Supporting Actor.) Susan Sarandon also appears, mainly for comic relief, as Susie's boozy grandmother, who shows up for a bit to help the family through the healing process. There's a montage of her trying to help out around the house despite a lack of parenting and homemaking experience that's kind of funny, in a sitcom sort of way, but also brings the momentum to a screeching halt. 

Jackson also (and some of this might be Sebold's fault, I don't know) completely belly flops the ending. He's getting worse and worse with endings all the time. I personally thought "Lord of the Rings" ended on a dry, emotionally inert note, with its 12 different, equally dull, conclusions, and the hacky final third of "King Kong" unfolds almost entirely in slow-motion, trying to turn a simple story about a giant ape who gets loose in New York into a "Schindler's List"-esque catharsis. Here, he resolves essentially all of the stories on a sour, predictable or unsatisfying note. Susie explains the meaning of the title "the lovely bones" to us in a voice-over at the end, and basically implies that the story of her time in limbo was REALLY the story of her family's path to healing and recovery, but the only story that Jackson truly manages to wrap up is Susie's. Jack, in particular, gets the short shrift; he's the film's only driven, passionate character and he gets essentially sidelined for the entire third act. And let's not even get into the fate of George Harvey, whose final scene in this film represents one of the absolute low points of Peter Jackson's entire film career. This is an embarrassingly cheap, utterly fraudulent way to finish one of the film's key plotlines. If Jackson, Walsh and Boyens care so little for what happens to George Harvey, why follow up with him at all? Ambiguity is better than a lazy cop-out, any day.

What I'm saying, in the longest, most drawn-out way possible, is that the Salmon Family stuff could really be its own passable (but not great) movie, without the need for what essentially amounts to a gimmick. Perhaps, in the book, the connections between Susie's reality and Earth are handled with more subtlety and care, but Jackson repeatedly insists on drawing attention away from the story that's actually interesting (the family struggling to get over a violent, horrifying death) and towards the vague, scattered, ultimately pointless and frequently silly "Limbo" bit. Yes, yes, we get it. Susie was killed in a cornfield, and saw a picture of a lighthouse before she died, and now these icons serve as Limbo landmarks. There are bird sculptures on the walls of her dad's den, so the leaves on the Limbo trees turn into birds. George is obsessed with houses, and we see him menacingly stare in the windows of the small dollhouses he builds like a perverted Brobdingnagian. (I mean, come on...a middle-aged unmarried, childless suspected child killer, a who builds doll houses as a hobby? The cops weren't at least a little suspicious of this guy? No one felt like they were laying this on a bit thick?) A bit of this goes a long, long way.

And why bother with tons of those sorts of asides when there's such an interesting situation to explore going on elsewhere? It feels like Peter Jackson got distracted by the special effects and the aesthetics of Susie's world, and failed to focus on the real emotional core of the story - the living human beings. I'll end with a prime example. There's a very important, very sad scene in which Jack goes to get film shot by Susie before her death developed, against the wishes of his wife, who can't bear to think about and remember her lost daughter. And Peter Jackson chooses that moment to give himself a goofy cameo, jerking around a very '70s video camera in the background. (Get it? Har!)  Perhaps this is just modesty - he figured no one would recognize him - but it totally pulled me out of the scene for no good reason to see him back there. He just kind of didn't care so much about what could have been a significant and above-all HONEST scene about the horror of losing your child. The very thing his movie's supposed to be about.

Posted via email from Lon Harris