Peter Jackson’s adaptation of “The Lovely Bones” is the kind of stunning failure we don’t often get to see.
Last night Jackson brought the film and his cast to the Paris Theater for a premiere, and took his chances with an invited audience. For a few minutes, it all seemed okay. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad: the 14-year-old girl who narrates the story, played by Saoirse Ronan, was alive and well. Mark Walhberg (who is very good at creating empathy for his character) and Rachel Weisz were her parents; the latter seemed miscast. Susan Sarandon was the feisty 1970s cool grandma. “The Lovely Bones” had potential.
But then the bottom drops, the shark jumps, a cup of crazy is served, and Alice Sebold’s beautifully wrought, tightly constructed narrative is thrown out. In comes choas in the form of CGI, psychedelic computer graphics, and nightmarish hallucinations that are also stunning to behold but totally and completely irrelevant. You needn’t bring drugs to this movie; you feel as though you’ve taken them. And so “The Lovely Bones” becomes the Unwieldy Mess, a victim of its own overreaching ambitions.
What’s interesting about the novel is that you could give it to five different directors and get five different films. Oliver Stone would do the conpsiracy version, David Lynch would emphasize the creepy small town killing, David Fincher would follow the investigation, and so on. Giving the book to Peter Jackson, whose fanciful spirit made possible the epic “Lord of the Rings” series meant this is what you were going to get: heaps and heaps of Susie Salmon’s teenage fantasies broadcast from heaven. The movie splits between the reality of Susie’s murder and very mannered, brightly rendered graphics. Some of it looks like the Tele-Tubbies, and a lot of it resembles album art from the 1070s. The latter may be intentional since this was the period. Maybe all of Susie’s thoughts are expressed that way because of the time. But one would have been enough.
Into all this inconsistency comes Susan Sarandon, as Susie’s kicky grandma. It’s a standout performance because she’s the only real thing going on, and she takes charge during the family’s grief. But there’s a problem: suddenly in a movie about a psycho next door, a teen girl’s murder and a family’s disintegration, the focus swings away and the audience is laughing. It’s a different movie, with a different tone and temperament. You do feel a little uncomfortable.
I’m assured that 14-year-old girls are going to go wild for “The Lovely Bones.” Knowing that, Jackson has kept the gore to a minimum. Susie’s rape isn’t even mentioned. The murder is cleverly cut around. Stanley Tucci’s Mr. Harvey is creepy without being too creepy. The lovely bones in his safe are shot in the stylized manner of much of the movie, with dollops of music playing to make everything seem alright. It’s not.
And oh yes: are there Oscar nominations here? Perhaps, for art direction. But Paramount is smart to concentrate on Jason Reitman’s excellent, “Up in the Air.” Tucci has his good work in “Julie & Julia.” Sarandon might be the sole beneficiary of positive attention. But the advance warnings (save from the bought-off aintitcoolnews website) were spot on. This is film number eleven.