"The Lovely Bones" is a memorable book; the narrator, a fourteen-year-old girl is dead and tells the story of her death and how her parents cope with the tragedy. If anyone might seem to be the perfect choice to adapt this book to the big screen, it is probably Peter Jackson, the force behind the enormously successful "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
But there is just something wrong with the movie adaptation. It just doesn't work as well as you would expect or hope for from a director of his caliber and his writing partner, both of whom worked together of enormously successful collaborations in the past.
1973. Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan, "Atonement") lives happily with her mom and dad (Rachel Weisz and Mark Wahlberg) and her brother and sister. One day, taking a short cut home from school, she walks across an abandoned cornfield and meets one of the neighbors, Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci). Mr. Harvey has been watching Susie and wants to become her friend. In fact, he is excited to show her a little clubhouse he has built for the neighborhood children. Would she like to see it? It isn't far. In fact, it is built in a hole in the field they are currently walking across. Susie is eager to see it and follows Mr. Harvey into his clubhouse. But things quickly go wrong. Later that evening, Mom and Dad begin to get worried when Susie doesn't come home. She is a good kid and doesn't normally come home late. They call the police and Detective Fenerman (Michael Imperioli) arrives to help them out. When Susie doesn't show up and they can't find her, Jack and Abigail begin to unwind so Grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon) comes to help out, to take care of her other two grandchildren, Susie's younger sister and brother. Susie is watching all of this from the "In Between", narrating the story of her life and death for us, giving us a look into how this family copes with the loss of a loved one.
Set in the early 70s, the film is a fairly straightforward narrative; a family mourns the loss of their fourteen-year-old daughter. When Susie dies, and begins to narrate the story for us, this makes everything more interesting and more intimate. Because she is viewing everything from the "In Between", Susie has knowledge about everything affecting her family, giving us an intimate knowledge of their emotions and feelings. This allows the author and filmmaker a certain amount of creative license; for the author, she can give us details we would not necessarily have otherwise. For the filmmaker, it allows him a little license to interpret, to be creative, to play with his special effects toy box. But Jackson takes this license too far. Yes, the film is set in the early 70s, but despite the high production value, as Susie and her new friends (other teenagers caught in the "In-Between") begin to explore their new landscape, it looks like a cross between "The Lord of the Rings" and a flashback Greg Brady might have after sniffing too much glue while making a model airplane with his brothers. They walk through lush green hills, past burbling brooks of crystal clear water. All of this instantly brings to mind the lushness of the New Zealand landscape featured so prominently in the director's films. But Susie looks into the water and sees a giant rose blooming under the surface. Another time, she is walking past huge glass ships that begin to crash into one another. It just seems a little too "Hippy Dippy".
As in the book, you know from a very early stage who kills Susie. And Stanley Tucci's portrayal of Mr. Harvey is the best thing in the film. Suitably creepy, it is easy to see how someone who is innocent or unsuspecting might fall for his trap. He seems nice, so it doesn't seem like a huge stretch when Susie agrees to go and look at his new clubhouse. And when Tucci has to turn on the creeps, he is able to do that. Years after Susie's murder, Harvey returns home and suspects something. He sits silently at his dining room table, his ears alert. Finally, he hears a noise and springs into action.
Saoirse Ronan is also very good at portraying all of the values you would expect in this girl. Mom forces her to wear a knitted cap a relative has made for her, she appears even more innocent than she already is. But the fact Susie reluctantly puts this on, after leaving school, shows she is not a very rebellious sort, even at fourteen. She trusts people and doesn't really have a lot of reason to not trust people. Yet. But unfortunately, she will learn too late.
It is also nice to see how her unrequited love for the new student at her school is handled. She is instantly attracted to Ray Singh (Reece Richie), a handsome boy who has recently moved to the small town from London. Admiring him from afar, she doesn't have the courage to approach him. Then, he makes the first move and this makes Susie swoon. She dreamily thinks of Ray as she takes a shortcut home from school. She is in such a good mood, she takes a few extra minutes to check out the new clubhouse Mr. Harvey has built.
Susan Sarandon is amusing as the grandmother who realizes she has to suddenly act like a grandmother, to help her grieving family. She is quite a sight to watch; Grandma Lynn vacuums the floor with a cigarette dangling from her lips and a glass of scotch nearby. Grandma would rather be doing a lot of things and we instantly realize domestic chores are at the bottom of the list.
Mark Wahlberg seems out of place as Jack, the patriarch of the family. He just doesn't seem like an adult and he seems like a teenager playing the head of the family in a high school play. It doesn't help that he is unable to change anything about his voice, to reflect any of the differing emotions he has throughout the story.
Michael Imperioli plays Len Fenerman, the detective assigned to the case. Throughout the film, Imperioli seems to miss some key moments to demonstrate any emotion for his character. Jack pesters the detective with his theories and ideas about Susie's disappearance. He just calmly listens. When the case goes nowhere, he seems quietly resigned. When they close in on a suspect, he doesn't seem all that excited. When he interviews Mr. Harvey, his suspicions aren't raised, so you begin to wonder if he is any good at his job.
It's too bad that so many people in the film seem to have been directed to play everything low key and with so little emotion. This is a story about a family who loses one of their own, why shouldn't there be some emotion, some fury. Wahlberg shouts a little, but it isn't enough and isn't very believable. Weisz, who plays Abigail, the mom, is okay, but she isn't very emotional either. In fact, Abigail leaves the family at one point, unable to deal with all of the emotions. Without any apparent emotion, the end just falls flat and doesn't register with the intensity you would hope for or expect.
"The Lovely Bones" is a rare misfire from an extremely talents and gifted writer and director.