Review: The Lovely Bones, 2009, dir. Peter Jackson

If we’re left with but a single takeaway for Peter Jackson’s 2010 effort, The Lovely Bones, it’s that even a visionary director of Peter Jackson’s caliber has opportunity to soil their sheets with the lights on.  Make no mistake, The Lovely Bones— based on Alice Sebold’s novel of the same name– is nothing short of a catastrophe, the kind of unfocused and ADD filmmaking you expect from a talent sitting in the director’s chair for the first time but whose impressive pedigree elevates it from mere garbage to unmitigated disaster. Only one question remains after the film’s flimsy climax gives way to credits rolling and we breathe easy with the experience behind us– how could Peter Jackson let this movie happen?

And it’s all on Jackson, no ifs, ands, or buts. Certainly he had accomplices on The Lovely Bones in the form of the usual suspects both above and below the line, and maybe arguments can be made that apportion some of the blame to them, but that smacks of an apologist philosophy to which I do not prescribe. I’m also man enough to admit that the urge to excuse Jackson’s transgressions here is a strong one– he’s an incredible, talented director whose sensibilities and style immediately identify his work as his own, a trait that many wannabe filmmakers floating about in today’s homogeneous pool of directing “talent” lack. He’s the person who brought The Lord of the Rings to life, for Christ’s sake. But I respect Jackson too much to pass the buck when he drops the ball in such grand, dramatic fashion.

The Lovely Bones is bad. Not “bad” in the way that movies like Dead Alive or Bad Taste are bad, in that enjoyable, D.I.Y., no-budget schlock shock entertainment manner, but legitimately, irredeemably awful. There is not a single aspect of The Lovely Bones which at any point presents appropriate amends for the purpose of undoing the injury one suffers through the entire experience of the film’s punishing and self-indulgent two hour running time; Jackson neither offers a satisfying resolution nor an interesting character study, content instead to chaotically switch tones at breakneck pace for reasons inexplicable in between the film’s special effects pieces.

It is immediately unclear as to what kind of story Jackson wants to tell, or thinks he’s telling. The Lovely Bones bounces back and forth between moods, ranging from morose to life-affirming to melancholic to unexpectedly joyful, and between modes, at times acting like a thriller about a grief-stricken father and at others a schmaltzy teen romance, and at other times still the film plays like a slapstick comedy in which Susan Sarandon is woefully incompetent at everything she does. The tonal schizophrenia becomes exhausting almost instantly, and yet remains throughout the entirety of the film despite overstaying a welcome which is never genuinely given; more than that, though, The Lovely Bones‘ atmospheric shifts are just baffling, detracting from the telling of the film’s story by virtue of their jarring nature.

What’s most certain is that he’s not telling an emotional story about the death of Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), a 14 year old girl stalked, raped, and murdered by the seemingly innocuous Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci). Susie moves on to the next life and quickly makes a number of attempts at communicating with her grieving parents, Jack (Mark Wahlberg) and Abigail (Rachel Weisz); meanwhile Dad is quick to kick off his own investigation to get to the bottom of Susie’s death while Mom is ready to move on almost immediately. In between, the Salmons all in theory learn to accept the hand life has dealt them and make the best of things, but the natural resolution is reached after such choppy and half-assed storytelling that nothing about the climax or the rest of the story feels remotely genuine.

What happens to Susie is appalling, but Jackson’s inability to make her cruel and premature departure and the suffering her family endures in the wake of the events palpable is even moreso; filtered through Jackson’s personal artistic lens, this devastating and terrible event almost plays out like a good thing as Susie’s soul flits away into the afterlife, where she dances and has just the happiest old time with her special afterlife friend, Holly (Nikki SooHoo), as her family’s mourning Jackson puts coldly on display for observation rather than personal investment. Watching the film, put succinctly, one feels kept at arm’s length from its characters to the point where connecting with them and understanding them becomes impossible. While The Lovely Bones ostensibly is about healing and reconciliation in the face of personal tragedy of such magnitude, it never earns that payoff but rather just sort of arrives at it, making the denouement feel almost offensively inappropriate. Jackson can’t truthfully sell his characters moving on after Susie’s death because he fails to totally and honestly convey her family’s pain– and without that, they’re not moving on from anything.

The Lovely Bones is such a massive fiasco that talking about anything but Jackson’s failure as the helmsmen feels like a giant waste of time. While nobody comes out of this picture looking good, it’s clear that the cast at least attempted to breathe some life into the film even if their efforts, ultimately, were totally futile. It’s to the credit of both Tucci and Ronan that they’re each able to mine genuine characters from Jackson’s and Fran Walsh’s mess of a script, and their performances comprise the two film’s best elements. No one else here is truly terrible, but from Jack to Abigail to Grandma Salmon to Concerned Detective, they’re all ciphers, faceless and characterless inconsequentials whose personal catharses we don’t care about and the film never reaches.

This is Jackson’s fault. Maybe a handful of more optimistic reviewers out there have figured out a way to place responsibility on non-guilty parties, but I don’t have the drive necessary to engage in the mental gymnastics one must have to employ to reach such a conclusion. While The Lovely Bones can’t and hasn’t diminished Jackson’s influence and importance among contemporary filmmakers, it certainly casts a lot of doubt on what his post-Rings career will look like from here on out. With his return to the Middle Earth sandbox next year, likely audiences will see the Jackson of the early 2000s back in full force, but that Jackson is in hiding somewhere far, far away from this film.

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7 thoughts on “Review: The Lovely Bones, 2009, dir. Peter Jackson

  1. I agree entirely. I almost felt like the film thought what happened to Susie was a “good” thing (at least she’s in heaven now) and that everyone should just accept it. Which is entirely different from what it should have been saying about coming to terms with a loss like that. And then there’s the surreal way that the movie uses the killer to generate low-rent tension – it feels almost sleazy.

    Oh, love the new layout.

    • I almost feel like the movie would have been improved if Tucci had been cut out of the narrative entirely, which is weird considering that (as I say) he’s one of the best parts of the whole thing. But “sleazy” is dead-on; it’s cheap and exploitative, and feels incredibly lazy. There’s no mystery. We know who Harvey is. So the whole “family searching for the killer” thing is absolutely devoid of tension, replaced instead with frustration. I think there’s a way to have that kind of storyline work, but this just isn’t it– I kind of loathed the Salmons midway through the movie for not figuring out Harvey’s identity sooner.

      Thanks for the thumbs up on the layout. You may have seen over the last few months, but I’ve been struggling to find a layout that really suits me, hopping from one the other to the next. This one really works for me– I think it’s here to stay.

  2. dang, i really liked this movie. i think people went in after reading the book expecting to see one thing, but i liked the film adaptation. i think it captured what’s really precious about the story.

  3. I read somewhere producers forced Jackson to make changes at the last minute. Might explain the problems. But then again. there’s just not anything remotely interesting here except a good Tucci performance, and little suspenseful moments. But in the end, it’s time to call it a day, and read the book. Good Review Andy!

    • Candice– maybe other people had expectations based on their reaction to the book, but I haven’t read it. If I had any expectations at all they were based on Jackson being a good filmmaker. Unfortunately he just really dropped the ball for me, here; I felt locked out of the family’s emotional struggle, which was really frustrating.

      You’re actually right, Dan, at least partially– Jackson had to make last minute changes because some of the material fell flat with test audiences. I don’t even want to know which scenes didn’t work for them, and what Jackson subsequently “improved”, because whatever changes Jackson made, they didn’t work. I think you’re on the money here– thanks Dan!

  4. This is an amazing book, you should read it. It’s not really about what happened to Susie (because, probably, it’s very upsetting to focus on) but the aftermath on her family that she watches from Heaven. Jackson really failed at bringing anything that was good about the book to the screen, all the familial connection was gone. I think he couldn’t decide whether to make it a murder mystery or a character piece.

  5. Very, very well said. This movie was a complete and utter debacle. The only redeeming factor, if you can call it that, was a strong performance from Stanley Tucci. Other than that, I thought the movie just dragged on for far too long and lacked any real direction.

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