Put simply, the main problem here is the source material. Even more than John Hillcoat’s take on The Road, which I thought was an admirable adaptation of a so-so tome, The Lovely Bones the movie is, imho, about a good a film as you could make from such a lousy and overrated book. Now, I understand Sebold’s novel has spoken to a lot of people. But I am not one of those people. I found it to be ghastly, overwritten. Oprahesque nonsense, and finishing the durned thing felt like a chore. And even with PJ at the helm, sadly, The Lovely Bones remains several hours of mostly needless despair-pr0n.
If you haven’t read the book, the gist is this: It’s early December, 1973, and our 14-year-old narrator, Susie Salmon (here, a very good Saiorse Ronan, formerly of Atonement), one day makes the mistake of following her creepy neighbor (Stanley Tucci) into his newly-constructed evil underground lair. There, she is raped and murdered. (This grisly event takes us to about page 20, iirc.) Susie goes to Heaven — or a Heaven-like Limbo, in any event — while her family grieves and gnashes and laments and wails for 300 pages. Oh, and eventually there’s some ghost sex. Yes, really.
Fair enough, but how do they gnash and wail? Well, Ma Salmon (Rachel Weisz) refuses to deal with the loss and its consequences — She turns Susie’s room into an untouched tomb, has an escapist affair with the detective on the case (Michael Imperioli), and eventually runs off to pick grapes somewhere. Pa Salmon (Mark Wahlberg) handles it even worse — The murder upsets his primal sense of order about the universe, and he obsessively tracks down the killer on his own for years to come. Grandma (Susan Sarandon) moves in to try to fill the void left by the distant parents, when she’s sober. And Susie’s siblings, Lindsey (Rose McIver) and Buckley (Christian Thomas Ashdale), grow up and live their lives, although Lindsey has some sneaking suspicions about the creep next door…
Peter Jackson and his LotR writing team (Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) have made a few changes here and there. Most notably (and very thankfully), Susie’s rape is now only vaguely implied rather than shown. (To those who question this change, I’m with Ronan: What in blue blazes is wrong with you?) Here, Susie’s murder is quite gracefully handled, although I could’ve done with less spider-toying-with-the-fly type stuff before the horrible deed is committed. And Ma Salmon’s romance with the detective is gone — now it’s just occasional long looks. Otherwise, they follow what I remember of the book pretty closely here.
Which is a lot of the problem. Like the book, The Lovely Bones is mostly inchoate and shapeless. As in the novel, there’s no real through-line or sense of momentum in the story. It moves without purpose — Time passes, stuff happens. Look, Susie is playing in her beautiful heaven…oh wait, she’s sad…hey, let’s have a grandma montage…ok, Tucci is still creepy…hey, look, more heaven….oooh, Marky Mark is on the warpath…and so on. I suspect folks who complain about the last thirty minutes of Return of the King will not have much fun with this one — the whole movie has that languid, meandering, “oh and another thing” feel to it.
That being said, The Lovely Bones is quite pretty to look at. (Thanks, Team WETA!) Despite the awfulness of the subject matter, Bones has a very crisp and colorful presentation that soothes the eye even as the story bogs down. And the performances are all pretty good here — especially Ronan — with one minor exception. His Oscar nod aside, Stanley Tucci is probably the weak link here. Like Peter Sarsgaard in An Education, he’s way too much of an off-putting mouth-breather to take seriously. Playing the killer as more sociable and self-assured — like Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu in the original version of The Vanishing — would’ve added a lot more menace to this thankless character.
So, given what he had to work with here, I thought Peter Jackson et al actually turned in a pretty quality product. (The real problem was trying to adapt Sebold’s book in the first place.) So, no harm, no foul, so to speak: The Lovely Bones is by no means a bad movie — It just sorta is. If you really want to see Peter Jackson tackle a story involving fantastical visions, teenage girls, and unspeakable acts of murder, I’d recommend his earlier classic, Heavenly Creatures. As for Bones, my thoughts on it are pretty much akin to my sneaking suspicions about a film I haven’t yet seen, Lee Daniels’ Precious. In this world, sadly, really horrible things happen to good and innocent people every single day…but that doesn’t mean we have to wallow in the fact.