January 15, 2010 in Features

Human story is lost in ‘Lovely’

David Germain Associated Press
Paramount Pictures photo

Mark Wahlberg, left, and Saoirse Ronan star in “The Lovely Bones.” Paramount Pictures
(Full-size photo)

Odd as it sounds, Peter Jackson needed to come down to Earth a bit more in “The Lovely Bones,” his adaptation of Alice Sebold’s best-seller about a murdered girl looking back on her life from beyond.

The visionary filmmaker behind “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy still is in fantasyland, and the film suffers for it as Jackson crafts lovely but ineffectual dreamscapes of the afterlife that eviscerate much of the human side of the story.

He loses the spark of Sebold’s story – a young girl’s lament over a life never lived, a family’s bottomless grief over a child and sister lost – amid his expensive pretty pictures.

Like the book, the film merges first-person and omniscient narration as Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan, an Academy Award nominee for 2007’s “Atonement”) chronicles her journey from sensitive 14-year-old schoolgirl to shattered soul stuck in a nether zone between earth and heaven.

Sweet and somewhat shy, Susie is just developing a passion for photography and on the verge of her first kiss when a creepy neighbor (Stanley Tucci) with a serial-killer past lures her into his secret lair and murders her.

For her family – parents (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz), grandmother (Susan Sarandon) and younger sister (Rose McIver) – Susie has simply vanished, her body hidden away by her killer.

Years pass, and Susie watches the family crumble, her mom running off to work on a farm, her dad obsessed with finding his daughter’s murderer, and the exasperation of the cop (Michael Imperioli) handling the case.

Through death, Susie gains a razor-sharp focus on what’s truly important, all those glorious little snapshot moments that, for the living, can become lost and forgotten in the cacophony of everyday life.

The vibrant, sometimes ominous fantasyland where Susie dwells disconnects her from the life on which she reflects, and puts her at a distance from the people she loves and misses.

The images often are striking – ships inside giant bottles shattering on the rocks of a forlorn shore, candy-colored landscapes where Susie romps as she begins to sense the freedom of passing into the cosmos.

But the spectacle Jackson creates is showmanship, not storytelling, distracting from the mortal drama of regret and heartache he’s trying to tell.

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