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TBTS Reviews: The Lovely Bones

February 10, 2010

I have a confession to make. Despite all of my orders to do so, I did not read Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.

Yes, it’s true — I disobeyed Oprah Winfrey’s commands. I’ve been living underground ever since, as the mere typing of these words puts me at great risk, and I hope the tribunals will show me mercy when their armies of stormtrooper housewives discover my malfeasance, break into my home and drag me away.

You may, of course, remember Sebold’s novel — the first-person narrative of a murdered young girl watching her family from the afterlife — as being one of the books whieh launched Winfrey’s illustrious book club into the stratosphere. To be fair, I’ve heard nothing but good about it; I probably should have read it at some point. But I didn’t.

Because I didn’t read The Lovely Bones, perhaps, I don’t have anything concrete by which to judge Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of the novel. And I’d like to, up front, address some of the criticism of the film that have come before this one. Many critics have derided it as a bit of a muddled mess — a creature that doesn’t know quite what it wants to be — and I can see that argument, even if I can’t speak to it fully because I don’t know the source material. But what I have heard often of the book is that Sebold’s prose is striking and she handles an abstract subject matter with eerie beauty.

The film follows the story of young Susie Salmon, (Saoirse Ronan) a typical teenage girl who, in 1973, is lured into a trap by a creepy neighbor (Stanley Tucci) and murdered. Watching her survivors from a peaceful netherworld, Susie refuses to pass along into heaven and instead opts to hold sway over her parents, siblings and would-be-boyfriend in an effort to help point them to finding the man who took her life.

If all this sounds a bit daft, you’re right — after all, when was the last time you saw a feel-good movie about child murder? It’s true that the film, at times, seems pulled in a myriad of directions: a mystery, a tearjerker, a tragedy, a police procedural, a musing on death and forgiveness and family and what comes next. And it’s easy to see why Jackson was pulled to the project; Susie’s depictions of the afterlife are a thing of beauty, with surreal landscapes and crisp imagery. There’s certainly a lot at work in The Lovely Bones, and while it may not all work perfectly, nor hold together in a jungian feat of tightrope expertise, it’s still very much an interesting film.

Ronan (who stole the show in 2007’s Atonement) is terrific as Susie; her parents are played ably by Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz, the former being obsessed with solving the murder and the latter unable to cope with the fallout of Susie’s demise. Susan Sarandon pops in as comic relief, playing Susie’s chain-smoking grandmother, and Stanley Tucci’s child murderer is slimy, effective and another great example of how good Tucci can be in a character role (his Oscar nom, while an different sort of choice for the Academy, is tough to dispute).

Did The Lovely Bones deserve more Oscar glory? Probably not. Though the film has some good performances, the film is all over the board. But oddly enough, I didn’t mind that. Sometimes an interesting movie is just an interesting movie, and no one can accuse The Lovely Bones of playing by any rules. It often seems clear that Jackson didn’t quite know what to do with it, or how precisely to wrangle the story, but he does his best. And Peter Jackson trying hard and falling short is still much better than most of what you’ll find in the multiplex. In the end, it’s is a strange and often beautiful, if a bit over-full and disoriented, piece of filmmaking that falls into many categories and yet no category. It’s definitely imperfect — imperfect doesn’t mean awful, and sometimes imperfect works. It worked for me — though I’m not sure I loved it, I’m glad I watched The Lovely Bones and found it to be an entertaining, interesting film. And maybe, at the very least, that will throw Oprah off my scent.

One Comment
  1. Mr Betty Draper permalink
    March 13, 2010 7:35 pm

    I agree with your review. There’s something indefinable about this film. Although in many ways it is a muddled mess, it’s also something more than that.

    I saw the thing yesterday, and my thoughts are slowly clicking in to place. I think Jackson manages to present us with an interesting concept, that works well, but once he does this he doesn’t know how to proceed with it. Ultimately this is a film that has to fight against messy direction.

    I’ve elaborated in my blog post, do check it out and let me know what you think.

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