“The Lovely Bones” aims at heaven and misses.
It also aims at a more earthly target, the Oscars. It could get a nomination as Best Picture-this year for the first time there will be 10 nominations for Picture instead of the traditional five.
But its best possibility for an Oscar is Stanley Tucci, who will get a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Tucci makes one’s skin crawl as the neighbor who appears nondescript, but who is insidious and evil. It’s the role of a lifetime for the talented Tucci.
Also outstanding is Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement”), who brings credibility and sensitivity to the risky role of the smart and innocent young victim.
“The Lovely Bones,” based on the immensely popular novel by Alice Sebold, is brought to the screen under the direction of Peter Jackson (the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy).
“The Lovely Bones” is a powerful, harrowing tale of the murder of innocence, and its painful, turbulent reverberations through a family and beyond. (Novelist/poet Sebold was the victim of rape as a college student.)
Sebold’s book is a quirky, coy, uneven, provocative novel that demands you suspend your disbelief. But the movie has greater problems than the book.
The story is told by 14-year old Susie Salmon (Saoirse). This is where Sebold (with screenwriters Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) provides director Jackson with his greatest obstacle.
The greatest obstacle is not that a dead girl is telling the story. The greatest obstacle is that she tells the story from the “inbetween” area (a child’s drawing in the book) between heaven and earth, and from heaven itself.
Jackson has to visualize these locales. In the book we could transcend Sebold’s descriptions of place with our imagination, but Jackson has to make them graphic.
Jackson wants to be Lord of the Wings. But his heaven is not engaging. His visualization looks like an outdoor romper room. I expected to see Teletubbies running around with Barney as Lord.
One can transcend Sebold’s often silly written descriptions, but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get beyond Jackson’s artsy images.
When Billy Wilder made “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), he also had the narration told by a dead person, Joe Gillis (William Holden). Originally he shot footage in a morgue with the dead talking among themselves about their demises. But Wilder cut that because the location didn’t work.
Jackson doesn’t cut the location of his narration, but “The Lovely Bones” would be a better film if he had.
Jackson has much better fortune on earth. He gets several memorable performances. Tucci and Ronan are outstanding. Susan Sarandon is fine as the over-the-top, bibulous grandmother. Mark Wahlberg is solid as the grieving father. Surprisingly, Michael Imperioli underplays as a committed detective.
More surprising is that Rachel Weitz is unremarkable as the bereaved mother. Her role is trimmed from the novel — she doesn’t have the affair she had with the detective in the book.
Jackson’s direction is uneven; in some ways he seems stymied by the book.
Much of the movie is gripping, but Jackson drags out the anti-climactic conclusion, and it lacks punch. Part of this is due to Jackson’s fidelity to the novel, but some is due to his inability to sustain cinematic energy. Fate and celestial artiness intrude.
“The Lovely Bones” is a film in cinematic limbo, caught between “heaven” and earth. “The Lovely Bones” is another movie that makes me fear hell. But it doesn’t make me want to go to heaven.
Tony Macklin, a former college English and film professor, is still foraging for truth in literature and film, in Arkansas, Las Vegas and beyond.