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'Lovely Bones' gets stuck in its own sweet syrup

POSTED: January 13, 2010 4:17 p.m.
/Dreamworks

Mark Wahlberg and Saoirse Ronan star in "The Lovely Bones," a retelling of the bestselling novel that at times resembles a made-for-TV movie.

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It turns out, there’s a fine line between “lovely” and so syrupy sweet it’s silly.

Peter Jackson’s much-anticipated adaptation of the Alice Sebold novel “The Lovely Bones” dances all over that line. Many of its scenes express the beauty of human love and the importance of memory. Not to mention how powerful the desire for justice can be.

But too much of the time, this movie exudes all the sophistication of a cheap made-for-TV movie. And that’s a shame.

Fourteen-year old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is a very likeable, spirited girl. She loves her family but of course feels oppressed like every kid her age. She loves photography and has a burning crush on a senior boy named Ray (Reece Ritchie). Their first attempt at a kiss — her very first — is interrupted, but Ray asks her to meet him the following Saturday. Susie has a lifetime of wonderful experiences ahead of her.

All that is snuffed out when neighbor man George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) lures Susie to a hidden place and kills her. No one in the neighborhood knows yet that quiet Mr. Harvey is a serial killer. (Even though we know he’s a creep the moment we see him.)

Susie finds herself in a sort of limbo, somewhere between Earth and heaven. She’s not ready to let go of her life and she wants to urge her loved ones to find her killer — which the police are failing to do.

“The Lovely Bones” is an extremely hit-and-miss affair.

The cast (Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, Michael Imperioli) all play their roles well, and the source material is certainly strong. And it’s refreshing to see a movie that doesn’t try to hide its spiritual core.

Ironically, it’s the Oscar-winning director whose work is inconsistent.

Jackson shows the perfect amount of restraint, thankfully, during the murder scene. He gets us close enough to the moment of killing that it hurts, but he doesn’t exploit the event just to make us squirm. In fact, I prefer how Jackson handles this subject matter to how Clint Eastwood did in “Changeling.”

“The Lovely Bones” also contains one of the most genuinely suspenseful scenes in recent memory. It had been a while since I found myself talking to a character on screen. But there I was, begging a character to “get out of the house!”

The candy-coated, rainbow-colored, glitter-sprinkled flaws in this movie come from the sequences when we watch Susie frolicking in limbo land. This place is very close to heaven, and it’s a very predictable, clichéd depiction of how a 14-year-old girl would imagine heaven: flowers and butterflies and pin-up posters and puppies. Yes, puppies.

Jackson seems fascinated by what this place might look like, so we spend a long, long time there. Sometimes we understand why these scenes are necessary, but just as often they seem like a distraction from the story or, even worse, from what this place is supposed to represent.

The overbearing melodrama of these scenes undercuts the gravity of the material. Sebold’s story takes aim at the tragedy inflicted by serial predators, the irreparable pain of losing someone in such a brutal way, but also the beauty that can grow around the bones of the event.

One senses that Jackson had a harder time keeping his eye focused on these targets.

The climax of the movie does a lot to rescue us from this head-scratching limbo land, up until the final few minutes, which are possibly the cheesiest minutes ever put on film.

“The Lovely Bones” was better than I expected, but I’m not sure fans of the novel will agree. The preview audience was very large and extremely eager to see the movie. But when the credits rolled, no one applauded. Not even the polite, brief round of clapping that follows almost all screenings.

That’s not a promising sign.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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