Peter Jackson might have been the luckiest director of the 00s. A virtual unknown, the Kiwi hit the jackpot when New Line gave him hundreds of millions of dollars for those Lord of the Rings that came out a few years back (you may have heard of them). He only got luckier when the films turned out to not just be successful, but hugely loved and adored by both the novels’ fans and regular Joes alike. His reward was a $200 million budget for his vanity project, a remake of King Kong that received a less ecstatic response than his previous work.
Jackson closed out his decade with The Lovely Bones, which began playing in limited release last month, about the aftermath of a teenage girl being raped and murdered. Unfortunately, it again fails to live up to Jackson’s work on the Tolkien trilogy; but it’s also a film with moments that should not be dismissed.
Based on the best-selling book, The Lovely Bones is not only chronicles a teenage girl, Susie, as she falls victim to a serial killer and rapist, but also predominantly follows the story of her and her family after the sinful deed is acted out, often visiting Susie in what is called “Heaven.”
It should go with out saying that back at home, Susie’s parents aren’t coping well. Watching them from her dreamworld of an Afterlife, Susie (alongside all of the protagonists in the film) faces a dilemma – should she move on from the crime to embrace this Heaven, or sacrifice leaving it all to dwell on the past and her family?
Jackson has a hard time committing to any story-line or type of story. He shows Susie planning her first date, her death, a surreal bathroom scene, the family in pain, and a silly montage of a free-spirited Susan Sarandon moving in with the family â€“ all inside of a half of an hour. This is all interspersed with needless flashbacks to the crime, evoking a bad serial police procedural. So what is this movie supposed to be, PJ, Magical Realism? Mystery? Coming of Age? Family drama?
It’s not to say that it can’t be all of those; but The Lovely Bones fails to convincingly or interestingly create many of those aspects. And a few of those – namely the procedural and family drama elements, really fall flat.
Although The Lovely Bones may be a failure on an overall scale, it doesn’t mean that the film should be dismissed. Many parts of this film don’t work, to the point of irritation; but moments of this film make for some of the best of 2009 in film.
One strength is Susie’s Heaven. It’s a place where grand natural landscapes morph and slip into each other â€“ one second, you’re on a beach, the next you’re on a mountain top, and not much later you’re in a deep forest. The CG imagery that created this environment is a little less than convincing (I’ve heard the descriptor “Photoshop” thrown around), but the images themselves are still massively effective. The changes and the photography of this Heaven recall a dream that keeps evolving and never ceases to wonder. It deserves a place next to all of the wonderful places Jackson created for The Lord of the Rings.
Also to be commended is every cast member not named Mark Wahlberg (sorry), especially Stanley Tucci. The man goes under a complete transformation – bright contacts and bad toupee included â€“ to become Susie’s killer, Mr. Harvey. Tucci was last seen as the light, laughy husband of Julia Child in Julie & Julia, which makes it all the more startling to see his take on the horrible man who tries to act as normal as possible, and is surprisingly adept at doing so. It’s not just creepy, it’s disturbing. I’d rather have a nightmare on Elm Street than a sleepover at Mr. Harvey’s.
Though he often undermines it, Jackson deserves credit for establishing a mood of nostalgia, regret, sorrow and beauty â€“ often within the same shot. This is told as Susie’s story of being 14-years-old, and it contains a raw anger that is often missing when one looks back at adolescence. Granted, most don’t include rape and murder, but it’s still easy for anyone else to relate.
It’s this part of the film that I couldn’t shake – having seen the film over a month ago, the memory pops back into my head and prompts me to want to go back. For a film that doesn’t even work in many ways, The Lovely Bones sure is hard to stop thinking about.