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Movie Review: The Lovely Bones

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On my way out of the theater I heard an amazing comment. It blew my mind and made my night. The comment was something I did not suspect I would hear and if I had been drinking at the time it would surely have resulted in a classic spit-take. I heard a woman say, "I didn't know the girl died."

Wow. You could have knocked me over with a feather. I have a strong suspicion that this person did not know what movie she was going to see, nor had she seen a trailer which includes the ominous line "when I was murdered." That's right, murdered. In any case, this exiting moment was almost more entertaining than this dullard of a film.

I have heard that the film diverges in some significant ways from Alice Sebold's novel. For that, I am glad not to have read the book; sometimes it is best not to have that baggage. Now that I have seen the movie and recognize the story potential it has, I am curious to see how it is dealt with in the novel.

The trailers, with the catchy operatic style music, impressive visuals, and intriguing premise (not to mention Peter Jackson at the helm) won me over. I was quite excited to see how this would work. The Lovely Bones appeared to promise a murder mystery, wonderful fantasy imagery, and a large reservoir of heart. In some areas it paid off but in others failed to find a foothold at all.

The Lovely Bones tells the story of Susie Salmon (like the fish, we are told a number of times) who is murdered in December of 1973 as a fourteen-year old girl. This is not a spoiler, as it happens pretty early on in the film, is told even earlier, and is said in the trailer. Her murder sets off a chain of events that threatens to rip the Salmon family apart while the killer works on covering his tracks. Through all of this, Susie is in some sort of flower-power version of heaven, or at least the passage to heaven, where she watches those on Earth mourn, grieve, and attempt to investigate the murder themselves.

There are a lot of things to like in the movie, but unfortunately they are just bits and pieces. In the case of The Lovely Bones the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. Actually, it is much, much less. Fortunately some of those parts are quite good, making the film bearable.

The performances are generally good, at least as good as the film will allow. Susie's parents are portrayed by Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz, who do a fine job of playing grieving parents. The performances are understated and quiet, particularly for Weisz. I did believe them to be grieving parents although I do not think we were able to spend enough time with them.

Saoirse Ronan has a few moments to shine as the murdered Susie, when she isn't delivering, in a monotone, a slightly creepy voiceover from heaven, that is. I find her heaven work a little odd. I am not quite sure what to make of her up there. Her presence and motivations are not well defined.

Then you have Stanley Tucci as the killer George Harvey (don't give me that, you saw the trailer) and he is rather creepy. The man knows how to pull the string, carefully playing the line between camp and believability.

The screenplay from Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyen, and Peter Jackson is very careful to set up the bigger plot points, but falters when it comes to putting the pieces together. I am not one to require the story be completely laid out for me, but I do require the flow of events to move smoothly. In this case the dots are all there but the connecting lines have been erased and a couple of the numbers have been removed. Now, I was able to put it all together while I was watching, but it was not because the movie led me to do so, it was because I knew they had to go together. Does that make sense? It is a brain translation function I am having a little trouble with. You see, the film puts most of the pieces on the table, but some of them are a little oddly shaped and their home is not readily seen. We, the audience, are required to take those pieces and force them to fit. The final image makes sense as a reflection of the film's reality in the way a Picasso painting is a reflection of our reality. The depiction makes sense, not because it tells you what it is, but because you know what it has to be.

Another fault of the screenplay is the lack of heart and emotion. The very nature of this story tells me, intellectually, that it needs an emotional connection with its audience. I did not get that. It is strange. I knew that it needed this element, I was looking to make that connection, and was left wondering if it was me. No. It can't be me. There is definitely something missing in the storytelling that kept me from making that needed connection.

Then there is Peter Jackson. The man is a fantastic director, but I am wondering if he may need a change of scenery. While some the material does seem to be right up his alley, another chunk of it is not. The Lovely Bones is filled with great fantasy imagery as well as great camerawork, getting up in people's faces with a slightly fish-eyed look to the image, and some shakiness as the tension ramps up; these are elements from his older films and it works in isolated moments here. However, just like the screenplay, it is moments and not the whole.

When I step back and look at The Lovely Bones as a whole, I see some isolated strong character work, balanced by moments that are just awful (Wahlberg's terribly unconvincing "concerned" voice and the awful comedic sequence with Susan Sarandon come to mind). I see characters that have no development yet we are expected to care about them. I see some great shots paired with scenes that go nowhere. I see a story of a tragic murder reduced to a technical exercise. Perhaps the joke is on the viewer – were Jackson and his team intentionally nebulous, leaving out elements and having characters act in odd ways just to see how much we can take? Better yet, maybe those scenes that bring it all together are being saved for an extended-cut DVD release.

Bottomline. I really wanted to like this. Honestly. Unfortunately the story fails, character motivations and actions do not always add up, it feels awfully long, and I found I just did not care about the characters. That is the biggest sin committed here. If even some of the necessary emotion had been there I could have found my way in. In the end, I was left looking for moments to like rather than being mesmerised by the whole. The idea is a fantastic one that got lost in the execution.

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