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Movie Review: The Lovely Bones

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I’ve been wondering lately if Peter Jackson didn’t smoke a few too many pipes with Gandalf while visiting Middle Earth. With his strange, but oddly endearing, choice of having King Kong go ice skating and now with The Lovely Bones, he seems to have gone a bit silly in the head.

Watching on Sunday afternoon, I had a good time. The movie is suspenseful and creepy and gorgeous. It was after the movie, as things began to settle, that things began to unravel. I suppose it didn’t help that I overheard the following while walking to my car. Woman 1: “That sucked!” Woman 2: “It sure did.”

Driving home, the movie crumbled before my eyes and the crumbs fell into two piles: things that went very right and things that went terribly wrong. While brushing all of those bits and pieces of the movie’s life and afterlife from my lap, I’m amazed I kept my car on the road.

The Lovely Bones tells the story of Susie Salmon, a 14-year-old girl who is murdered by a serial killer. We see the days leading up to that terrible event. And we see her watch and try to guide those she left behind from a vibrant “in between” realm – not of the living, but also not quite Heaven. The movie is narrated by Susie.

The story also follows her parents Jack and Abigail (a woefully miscast Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz) as they struggle to cope and Susie’s sister Lindsey as she tries to solve the crime. For us, the identity of the killer, a creepy loner of a nearby neighbor, is never in doubt.

So, what does the movie get right? For one, Saoirse Ronan is perfectly wonderful as Susie. I felt for her at every moment and was genuinely dread-filled as her terrible ordeal inexorably and agonizingly approached. She has amazing blue eyes that draw you into her peril. I’ll be following her career with great interest.

For another, Stanley Tucci (certain to be Oscar nominated) is deliriously creepy as her killer, George Harvey. He’s a slimy, snaky villain. You can almost hear him hiss. His luring Susie into his ingenuous trap had my heart pounding. It’s one of Jackson’s best sequences and it’s almost unbearable to watch. It’s every parent’s worst fear made vivid.

One can’t fault Jackson for having a vision, even a bit of a loony vision such as this. Maybe though, he needed a few extra eyes looking over his shoulder. The Lovely Bones is the sort of muddled movie that only a great director set loose without bounds can create.

It envisions the afterlife as progressive rock album cover art sprinkled with giant roses and bouncy balls and lighthouses – all things associated with the murderer and his victims. Unfortunately, the shifts in tone between these psychedelic scenes and the world of the living with its realistic ‘70s period details are maddeningly jarring.

Worse, Jackson never decided how the afterlife works. Susie seems to be able to be seen or not be seen and to be able to touch or not be able to touch the living. It’s never clear what she can do. Because of this, there are scenes that reach for the magical or the spiritual (I think) that end up wallowing in the silly or the sentimental.

I’m going to forgive Jackson for this trespass. He has given me some of my favorite movies including Dead Alive – the best zombie comedy ever. I’m just glad that he won’t be spending any more time with Gandalf. Guillermo Del Toro will be directing The Hobbit.

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