If the latest film from “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson is to be believed the afterlife looks a lot like a Pink Floyd album cover from the late 1970s. In “The Lovely Bones,” a loose adaptation of the bestselling book by Alice Sebold, he goes heavy on the computer generated imagery to create a slick looking world, which despite the best efforts of the cast, is almost bereft of emotion.
In case you’re not a member of Oprah’s book club, who chose “The Lovely Bones” and propelled it up the best seller charts like a rocket, it is the story of Susie Salmon (“like the fish”) a 14 year old girl murdered in suburban Pennsylvania in 1973. Susie, however, didn’t go quietly into the long goodnight. From a place somewhere between Heaven and Earth she watches over her distraught family and tries to guide them through their time of despair.
Some of the now controversial CGI—early trade reviews called the film indulgent and “evocative of “The Sound of Music” or “The Wizard of Oz” one moment, “The Little Prince” or “Teletubbies” the next”—is quite beautiful and some of it is overkill. When Susie is making her arrival in “her heaven” it is a beautiful representation of a spirit floating away. Hugh shots of her never-to-be boyfriend Ray, reflected in a body of water that separates them and Ray again on a gazebo, surrounded by an undulating landscape, are a bit heavy handed. Jackson is the real deal, a skilled filmmaker and visualist, but he has to learn to trust the story and not let the technology do the talking.
Performance wise Jackson has cast well and gets good, solid work from his actors, particularly Rachel Weisz as the grieving mother, Susan Sarandon as the boozy grandmother and Rose McIver as the spunky sister Lindsey but it is the two central roles that the whole movie hinges on.
As the murderous Mr. Harvey Stanley Tucci is creepy; all twitchy movements and squeaky voiced. He’s Norman Bates without the overbearing Mom and wonderfully cast. Tucci, it appears can do anything. Earlier this year he played Julia Child’s loving diplomat husband in “Julie & Julia” and held his own opposite Meryl Streep. Now he’s the creepiest bad guy this year since Hans Landa drank a glass of milk with a French farmer in “Inglourious Basterds.”
At the heart of the film, however, is an arresting central performance by Saoirse Ronan as Susie, the little girl who never got to kiss a boy or see her fifteenth birthday. Her luminous presence gives the film whatever soul it has and her generous screen presence is a good tonic for the effects heavy scenes she plays in the “in between,” the blue horizon between heaven and earth.
“The Lovely Bones” should have been a better movie. It’s not terrible, mind you; it just doesn’t push the emotional buttons that a story about the murder of a young person should. Jackson is still in epic “LOTR” mode, taking a small, intimate movie and needlessly cluttering it up with bigger than life images that get in the way of the feeling of the piece.