Peter Jackson’s infatuation with fancy visual effects mortally wounds “The Lovely Bones.” Alice Sebold’s cheerily melancholy bestseller, centered upon a 14-year-old girl who narrates the story from heaven after having been brutally murdered, provides almost ready-made bigscreen material. But Jackson undermines solid work from a good cast with show-offy celestial evocations that severely disrupt the emotional connections with the characters. The book’s rep, the names of Jackson and exec producer Steven Spielberg, and a mighty year-end push by Paramount/DreamWorks will likely put this over with the public to a substantial extent, but it still rates as a significant artistic disappointment.
There has been cautious optimism among longtime Jackson followers that this material might inspire him to create a worthy companion piece to his 1994 “Heavenly Creatures,” which similarly involves teenagers and murder in an otherwise tranquil setting and remains far and away his best film. The potential was certainly there in the book, which reminds of Dennis Lehane’s successfully filmed novels “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone” in its devastating emotional trauma, but offers the distinctive perspective of the most entirely plausible omniscient narrator in modern literature.
Unfortunately, the massive success Jackson has enjoyed in the intervening years with his CGI-heavy “The Lord of the Rings” saga (the source of which receives fleeting homage in a bookstore scene here) and “King Kong” has infected the way he approaches this far more intimate tale. Instead of having the late Susie Salmon occupy a little perch in an abstract heavenly gazebo from which she can peer down upon her family and anyone else — all that is really necessary from a narrative point of view — the director has indulged his whims to create constantly shifting backdrops depicting an afterlife evocative of “The Sound of Music” or “The Wizard of Oz” one moment, “The Little Prince” or “Teletubbies” the next.
It’s a shame, because the first half-hour or so suggests that Jackson, had he taken a vow to keep it real and use not a single visual effect, still has it in him to relate a human story in a direct, vibrant manner. Aided immeasurably by the spirited teen actress Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement”), who plays Susie, the early scenes depicting the ordinary life of the Salmon family in a midsized Pennsylvania town possess a heightened quality charged by lively thesping and Andrew Lesnie’s dynamic mobile camera (pic was shot with the Red digital camera system).
“We weren’t those people, those unlucky people to whom bad things happen,” Susie intones from above, as we watch her interact with attractive young parents Jack and Abigail (Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz), sporty sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) and younger brother Buckley (Christian Ashdale), boozy glamorpuss grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon) and handsome first crush Ray Singh (Reece Ritchie), just before she announces she was murdered on Dec. 6, 1973.
Even before the deed is done, it’s plainly stated that the perpetrator is neighborhood solitary guy George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), a man marked as creepy by his utter ordinariness. While Tucci, adorned with stringy blondish-brown hair, moustache, large glasses and a raspy voice that tightens and elevates under pressure, is good enough to validate all the scenes involving this bland monster, Jackson shows his low-budget horror-film roots in the way he shoots the sinister scenes, with silhouetting white lights, heavy fog effects, wide-angle closeups and generic synth backgrounding from Brian Eno’s otherwise effective score.
While the script by the “Rings” trio of Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson at first inventively reshuffles elements to cinematic advantage, over time it serves more to dilute the impact of some story elements — the father’s obsessive determination to nail George no matter what, Lindsay’s romance, the passage of years — and eliminate others, including Ray’s beautiful, long-suffering mother and the relationship between Abigail and local cop Len Fenerman (Michael Imperioli), whose efforts to solve Susie’s murder are maddeningly frustrated.
Once Susie is installed in her heavenly quarters, for which Jackson digitally dedicates himself to continuously changing the wallpaper, the emotional link to the family is ruptured and never fully repaired. There are intermittently intense scenes: Lindsey proves herself a resourceful if somewhat reckless spy, and the ever-meticulous George almost blows his cover on occasion. The way Jackson only partially reveals the killer’s face at times is effective but stands in stark contrast to the wobbly treatment of so much else.
As the story progresses — in a way that points to resolution in one sense and a simple petering out in another — it becomes clear that the actors are being deprived of any meaty, well-developed scenes to play; we learn more about them early on than toward the end, making this a film of slowly diminishing returns.
With reddish hair, brilliantly alive eyes and a seemingly irrepressible impulse for movement and activity, Ronan represents a heavenly creature indeed, a figure of surging, eager, anticipatory life cut off just as it is budding. Less quicksilver and more solidly built, McIver’s Lindsey properly begins in her live-wire sister’s shadow only to grow gradually into an impressive figure. Chain-smoking and depleting the liquor cabinet, Sarandon camps it up for a few welcome laughs, while Ritchie seems a likely candidate for teen idolhood.
Mainly, it’s Wahlberg and Weisz who are shortchanged by the film’s divided attention between earthly agony and astral accommodation. Both thesps are OK as far as things go, but that’s not nearly far enough.
When it sticks to the everyday neighborhood inhabited by its characters, “The Lovely Bones,” which was shot on Pennsylvania locations and in New Zealand studios, finds a reasonable equilibrium between drama and production values. When it ventures beyond it, heaven turns into Hades.