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Difficult plot hinders 'The Lovely Bones'

Jan. 20, 2010

McClatchy News
Saoirse Ronan, left, who stars as Susie Salmon, works behind-the-scenes with director and producer Peter Jackson on "The Lovely Bones."

By James Blake Ewing

In the last 10 years director Peter Jackson started strong with "The Lord of the Rings Trilogy," declined into indulgent spectacle with "King Kong" and moved to the producer's chair with last year's sci-fi blockbuster "District 9." Now he's return to the director's chair to direct a murder drama a la his 1994 film "Heavenly Creatures."

Susie Salmon, portrayed by Saoirse Ronan, is a typical 14-year-old girl in love with a boy and infatuated with her camera. Therefore, she fails to even notice neighborhood stalker George Harvey, played by Stanley Tucci, the man who will kill her. After her disappearance, her father, Jack, portrayed by Mark Wahlberg, obsesses over every possible clue while her mother, Abigail, played by Rachel Weisz, declines into despair. The now- deceased Susie watches this from afar, in a beautiful netherworld that serves as a gateway between Earth and Heaven.

The core problem of the film is the story of Susie after death. Her spiritual presence throughout the film presents a number of problems: tedious narration, poor dialogue and drawn-out pacing. This in-between world lacks any inherent conflict or tension, making Susie's only role in the story narrator and mystical clue provider to her family. Furthermore, the conclusion of Suzie's dream world is so childishly idealized that it is hard to take seriously given the overall dark tone of the picture.

This leads to yet another problem: closure. The film wants to bring a satisfying conclusion to a story that shouldn't have one. No matter what this family does, it is never going to be the same again because it has suffered a horrible loss that will endure forever. The film's foolish desire to reconcile and rebuild this family in Susie's absence is false on both an emotional and narrative level. Perhaps these elements worked in the 2002 novel by Alice Sebold upon which the film is based, but here there's not enough development to justify the entire structure of the family drama.

The film would have been compelling if it focused on the murder. Stanley Tucci's performance slowly lures us in with his slight uneasiness and projection of vulnerability, disarming both his victims and the audience until it's too late.

The obsessive and meticulous planning of his character is fascinating to watch and a more interesting film would have been the Stanley Tucci and the Mark Wahlberg characters attempts to outsmart each other.

Visually, Peter Jackson displays some intelligent ideas. He parallels the sheltered life of this family with enclosed bottles and he makes the world of Susie and the real world clash in a handful of interesting ways.

The film also subverts one of the key elements of horror by making the most tense moments being when a character steps into the light instead of darkness.

However, most of the visuals suffer from poor digital effects. Sometimes they are so clearly manufactured that they jump out, as is the case with the netherworld imagery.

Given that he directed four of the most technically proficient films of the last 10 years, there is no excuse for the lack of quality.

"The Lovely Bones'" high concept is also its strongest enemy. Perhaps in the novel there was a reason for Susie's tale of life after death but here it becomes a wellspring of poor writing, subpar digital effects and inferior storytelling.

There are glimmers of brilliance and any scene with Stanley Tucci is excellent, but not even he can redeem the poor execution. Susie's rumination on death only serves to muddle the tale of the living.

Grade: C