Paramount // 2009 // 130 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // April 20th, 2010
The story of a life and everything that came after...
Mammoth motion pictures can easily drive studios to the brink of bankruptcy (Cleopatra, Heaven's Gate, Waterworld) and directors to the edge of insanity (Francis Ford Coppola's Heart of Darkness), but Peter Jackson makes it look easy. Not only are his films good and give studios a license to print money, but he seems like an affable, if eccentric, Kiwi. While The Lovely Bones is more introspective than his previous big-budget pictures (The Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong), it doesn't spare the special effects. As has been his wont, Jackson has once again created a celluloid fantasy world in which to stage his drama. This certainly fulfills his filmmaking ambitions, but will it mesh with the harrowing story of a murdered fourteen-year-old girl or her family's resulting grief and anger?
Set in 1973 in suburban Philadelphia, Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan, Atonement) is your normal high school girl: she's awkward, obsesses over boys, and has a tempestuous -- though warm -- relationship with her parents (Mark Wahlberg, Boogie Nights; Rachel Weisz, The Fountain). One day, on her way home from school, a local weirdo (Stanley Tucci) murders her. While her spirit moves onto a visually stunning afterlife, her parents descend into grief, anger, and frustration; their marriage suffering, as Susie's father becomes obsessed with finding her daughter's killer. Meanwhile, Susie can observe both her parents and her murderer, who often broods over the killing, even putting together a scrapbook of articles relating to the disappearance. Susie is also able to spy on her crush, Ray (Reece Richie), and fellow classmate Ruth (Carolyn Dando), who happened to be nearby when she was murdered.
Though Susie feels at peace in the afterlife, she frets over her parents, her murderer, and her lost love. She has a companion, Holly (Nikki SooHoo), who urges her to move onto heaven, but Susie resists; somehow needing to resolve the problems she sees on Earth.
While watching The Lovely Bones, I was frequently reminded of two similarly themed films: Ordinary People and What Dreams May Come. While The Lovely Bones shines in comparison to the mawkish Dreams, it suffers in comparison to Robert Redford's classic People. Not simply because What Dreams May Come is a far inferior movie -- the visual resemblances between the two films are unmistakable -- but because The Lovely Bones visuals are what elevates it beyond a mediocre drama.
In fact, The Lovely Bones' visuals are so striking they can be appreciated almost entirely devoid of the story and acting. This is one of the most beautiful, breathtaking films I have ever seen. Several times I found myself disregarding the plot entirely and merely gawking at the vibrant afterlife Jackson created.
This is not to say the story is entirely uncompelling. Ronan is an engaging lead, imbuing Susie with endearing teenage quirks that make her seem both precious and vulnerable. However, something about all the young characters surrounding Salmon seems a little off. This is partially because Ronan herself was 14 years old during filming, but few of the other young actors seem to be their appropriate age. Her high-school crush seemed to be about ten years older, which was creepy and compromised the supposed pathos of their lost romance. Susie's younger sister is played by an actor three years older than Ronan, and looks it. Hardly a cardinal sin, it's the kind of thing you notice when you cannot get involved in the story.
There are also problems with the adult characters. Wahlberg has the most limited range of any prominent feature film actor working today, with the possible exception of Vin Diesel. For such a demanding role as a grieving parent, Jackson asks way too much of him. There's a scene where Wahlberg is holding his crying wife and trying to comfort her, but his wooden delivery almost makes it comical, far from the emotional gut punch it needs to be.
Stanley Tucci is a fine actor, but he overplays his hand as the murderer and all-around creepy neighbor. It's a challenging role, and Tucci is certainly not cast's the weakest link, but with the mustache, comb over, and dead eyes, the character just seems too obvious. In a film in need of subtlety, he is yet another superficial character.
It's a shame so much of The Lovely Bones is rote and shallow. The movie does succeed in its ambitious goal of making a 14-year-old girl's murder an uplifting event, but this is largely accomplished through visuals, not storytelling or good writing. As such, film is little more than a lovely mixed bag.
The Lovely Bones is the kind of film that makes you thankful for Blu-ray. While the scenes in the afterlife are the clear highlights, Jackson even makes the suburbs of Philadelphia look enchanting. The scene where Susie meets George in the cornfield is mesmerizing, and the scenes of Susie in the afterlife radiate off the screen. The terrestrial shots are not as involving, but still bright, vivid, and spotless.
The soundtrack does not impress like the film's visuals; then again, it's not nearly as ambitious. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix is mostly employed for natural sounds and narration. There are a few instances of ambient music in the surrounds, though the visuals do the work while the music subtlety underscores what we're seeing.
One special feature makes up the entirety of Disc Two: a three-hour making-of documentary, "Filming The Lovely Bones." The film is broken up into three sections: USA Principal Photography, New Zealand Principal Photography, and Visual Effects Photography. While I applaud the clever inclusion of one substantial extra as opposed to countless pieces of filler, this will only be of interest to Jackson acolytes and fans of the film. Being neither, I found myself watching clips and bemoaning how steady and confident Jackson seemed in comparison to most directors who tackle similarly ambitious projects. It's vaguely interesting to see the master at work, but for entertainment value, I prefer to see artists suffer for their art.
Peter Jackson is such a visual artist that his movies -- whether the story is compelling or not -- are required viewing. Though The Lovely Bones's harrowing plot largely failed to resonate, I often found myself on the edge of my seat. With the crystal clear picture and audio treatment of a Blu-ray disc, this is a film worth seeing, though only in the literal sense.
The Lovely Bones commits a lengthy list of misdemeanors, but I can't
help but find it not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Production Diary
* Official Site
* Cinema Verdict Review