Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"The Lovely Bones" Review

"The Lovely Bones" is a unique breed of failure. Where most bad films dress as bad films, with lousy direction and ugly camerawork, Peter Jackson's latest dons some impressive threads. His cinematography is tight and nuanced. He lines up fine performances and crafts sequences that independently excel; yet somehow the conglomerate film all but implodes. More often than not, Jackson flat-out misses the point.

His ideas are frankly juvenile and "Lovely Bones" lacks bite even given its PG-13 rating. The film is based on the novel by Alice Sebold, about fourteen year-old murder victim Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), who observes her healing family from the Heavenly equivalent of limbo while learning to come to terms with death herself. What feels as though it should be a solemn contemplation on loss is often punctuated by staunchly optimistic tonal aberrations. When Jackson has an underage driver and her asphyxiating brother on his hands, he somehow can't help but romanticize their spin in the family convertible. The kids blow by mom (Rachel Weisz) and dad (Mark Wahlberg), who shoot each other a clueless "couldn't be!" sort of look straight out of "Home Alone." Or later, there's a rockin' seventies montage where boozy grandma (Susan Sarandon) charmingly ruins dinner and botches the laundry, turning the washroom into a sudsy dance floor for she and her grandson. Really.

It's moments like these that underscore the weird dichotomy of "Lovely Bones." It's a movie about murder in which we never witness a murder, and a movie about grieving in which grieving, when explored at all, amounts to euphemistic cliche. Dad smashes his precious ship-in-a-bottle collection in a fit of rage; mom leaves home for California to pick oranges or something; Grandma lights another cigarette; Susie's siblings don't seem much bothered at all.

You'll have to bear with me if this next comparison seems inapt, but I've been watching a lot of "Twin Peaks," and the early-nineties TV series is a perfect counterpoint to Jackson's sentimentality. The premises are nearly identical, with murdered teens prompting police inquiry and family crises. Mark Frost and David Lynch's series, however, dredges its characters to the precarious edge of hell in their grief, reducing Laura Palmer's parents to shrieking, sobbing loons. By comparison, the Salmons are positively stoic. Their grief is never made palpable, and so our emotional investment in their story is compromised.

If this leads one to ask where the drama went, or what was pulling Peter Jackson's heartstrings in taking on the film, the answer is abundantly clear--it's the lavish effects sequences. I can imagine no other reason the project piqued his interest, and he makes his priorities known even at the expense of a more focused film. He easily loses himself in spherical digital meadows, bottled ship smattered oceans, and all manner of other vaguely surreal and uniformly irrelevant scenes.

The thesis of the film, that new life and new connections foster in death, that there is beauty even in unspeakable horror, I find compelling. It's probably the reason for Jackson's bleating optimism in sequences like those described above, misguided though it may be. He stretches for the positive, even when a downer is what we really need. Holding the audience at arms length, he spoon-feeds us everything except the part of the story that's actually important. It's sort of weird to show Susie Salmon frolicking in a pristine garden after her death; it undercuts the gravity of what's been done to her. To juxtapose heaven with hell on earth is really the only way for the film to work, and Jackson doesn't have the gall to honestly portray the wrenching emotion of the scenario. From an objective filmmaking standpoint, he makes an admirable jab, but he simply isn't making the right movie.


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