I went in to Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones knowing — thanks to the trailer — that it was about a girl named Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) who is murdered by an uber-creepy neighbor (Stanley Tucci) and becomes stuck in between two worlds waiting for justice while her surviving family disintegrates. I came out 135 minutes later knowing pretty much the same thing — with a few holes filled in and a huge question about what the point of the whole thing was. I mean, what exactly is this movie? It’s a thriller with no thrills. It’s a kind of metaphysical journey with only one possible destination — and neither the journey nor the destination is all that interesting. It’s a great deal of effort by a lot of talented people that results in two-plus hours of tepid clockwork blandness.
I won’t say The Lovely Bones is a bad movie. It’s very skillfully made, frequently striking to look at and solidly acted. But for me at least, it was almost entirely uninvolving. Readers of the Alice Sebold novel may be able to invest the film with emotional resonance they’ve brought with them from the book. I can’t say. What I can say is that on its own merits, the film is lacking something essential — like a sense of purpose.
Jackson has a basic — probably insurmountable — problem in his insistence on keeping the film within the realms of a PG-13 experience. The tale is too dark for this and the film comes across as almost genteel in its approach. There’s no real sense of impending doom for Susie and no sense at all of the terror she must have felt trapped in George Harvey’s (Tucci) somewhat improbable subterranean lair. (This guy is like the Bob Vila of serial killers and must get preferred treatment at Home Depot.) In fact, her murder is almost a nonevent, and this isn’t helped by her matter-of-fact acceptance of the whole thing on a kind of, “Gee, I must be dead” level. I’m not blaming Ronan. It’s the way the film is approached.
Matters aren’t helped by Jackson’s fascination with the “in between,” where Susie cavorts with another girl, Holly (Nikki SooHoo, Stick It), like models in a shampoo commercial made by someone drunk on the possibilities of cartoonish CGI effects. When the trailer for The Lovely Bones first appeared, someone jokingly referred to it as Heavenly Creatures 2. If only. The fantasy world the two girls in Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994) retreat into has an internal logic, a strong dose of the sinister, and never feels like padding. None of those things can be said about the “in between.” For that matter, the tons of money poured into the effects in The Lovely Bones do not result in a fantasy world that’s nearly as persuasive as the simpler effects in Heavenly Creatures — a film that cost about one-twentieth the price tag for The Lovely Bones.
Ultimately, The Lovely Bones isn’t the disaster so many have claimed, but it’s a long way from being a rousing success. Any way you slice it, the film is a disappointment — and easily the least interesting and effective movie Jackson has ever made. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving disturbing violent content and images, and some language.