It’s rare that I dislike a novel that I read. For starters, I don’t read many (especially these days); I’m lucky to get through 6 books a year (which includes non-fiction stuff). So I don’t just read any old thing, I usually need to be sold on it. And since Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones” was praised by everyone, I figured I would enjoy it when I picked it up in 2004. But alas, I was mostly bored by it. I liked the concept, and it did strike a nerve here and there, but it was ultimately overlong, somewhat unfocused (for a while the book was more about her sister’s burgeoning relationship than anything else, like someone stuck a “Sweet Valley High” book in the middle of my ghost novel), and ultimately anticlimactic; the final 50 pages or so reminded me of Bartledanian literature. But that Peter Jackson fella is a pretty gifted filmmaker, so I was pretty optimistic that The Lovely Bones would be a success on film.
And it is, to some degree, but ironically it’s the big CGI spectacle stuff that Jackson brings to the table that weighs the film down. Despite the usual wooden performance by Mark Wahlberg (what happened to this guy? It’s like after Departed he figured “It’s all downhill from there, so why try?”) the film is close to great whenever we are sticking with the family, and in those scenes Jackson is able to find a bit of a focus that the novel lacked, as well as some truly nerve-wracking suspense (the scene where Susie’s sister goes into the killer’s home alone makes this scarier than most legit horror movies I’ve seen this year).
But he keeps shooting himself in the foot by cutting away from these scenes to show Susie running around a big CGI landscape. The effects are actually quite astonishing on a technical level, but they serve no real function and constantly distract away from the part of the film that works best. Worse, they never seem to progress in any meaningful way; every one of these scenes is essentially Susie running around alongside giant versions of something that she remembered from her time on Earth (snow globes, ships in a bottle, etc), and then yelling something that the people on Earth seem to sense. And even as spectacle, they no longer impress after a while, because they all resemble Scott Mutter photographs depicted as 3D screensavers. Doubling the irony is that Saoirse Ronan (as Susie) delivers the film’s best performance, albeit in its least successful scenes.
The film’s other great performance is Stanley Tucci as Susie’s killer, Mr. Harvey. The PG-13 rating prevents him from being too vile, but Tucci is able to convey the story’s more horrifying aspects (i.e. the fact that she was raped as well as killed) with his gestures and looks. Susan Sarandon is also a delight as the typically colorful grandmother, who smokes and drinks and always has a snappy one-liner to enjoy.
But like most of the other family members, she seems to lack an arc of her own, and you never really get a grasp on what she is feeling about the situation. Rachel Weisz is almost depicted as an un-caring mother in contrast to Wahlberg’s obsession, to the point where she actually leaves the family for a while. In the book she had an affair with the cop, which is hinted at in the film so briefly that I wondered why they even bothered including it at all. And Susie’s little brother doesn’t even appear in the third act, presumably because they couldn’t figure out a way to properly age him (aging is a problem throughout – Sarandon seemingly ages 15 years, Susie’s sister maybe 6, and Wahlberg not at all). And it all comes back to the same problem – too much time spent on the CGI showcase reel nonsense. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jackson had another half hour or so of worthy “character” scenes that were cut for time; if that is the case then I think he cut back on the wrong stuff. Reducing the afterlife scenes (and their truly woeful “other girls that were killed” characters – the movie is overstuffed just with the family, do we really need this shit on top of it?) to a single scene or two and using that time on the family might have resulted in one of the year’s best films, instead of its most uneven.
It’s rare to see a movie thats main problem is that it was simply overproduced (at least, outside of Bruckheimer/Bay’s output), but that is exactly the problem with Bones. Without any effects and an emphasis on character (which would be sort of a given if the budget was kept small), it could have been another solid win in Jackson’s career (not to mention make up for the equally overproduced King Kong). Instead, it’s a mixed bag, and I suspect a chunk of my warm feelings are the result of my dislike of the source material and surprising bad word of mouth (it’s worth pointing out that the film, in limited release, wasn’t even close to full on its opening night – not a good sign for supposed Oscar bait). It’ll make a pretty Blu-ray though, that’s for sure.