There's something noble about filmmakers who are willing to use the medium to represent states of being outside of normal earthbound experience. These could be dreams, drug trips, unconscious states, or, for especially brave directors, the experience of death and the afterlife. Most of the time, the experiment doesn't work. Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, in which Hugh Jackman travels to the edge of the universe in a floating bubble in order to keep his beloved Rachel Weisz from ever dying, was a failure, but a grand one. And it's worth enduring a lot of lame shaky-camera drug-trip sequences when you come across the rare example that works, like Mia Farrow's all-too-real rape nightmare in Rosemary's Baby.
Attempts to show heaven on-screen have an even slimmer chance at success. The afterlife lends itself too easily to treacly kitsch—remember Robin Williams in What Dreams May Come? But if anyone could do it, Peter Jackson would be the man. Upon first hearing that he was adapting Alice Sebold's best-selling novel The Lovely Bones, I was thrilled. Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (1994) evokes the fever dreams of female teenage interiority as well as any movie ever filmed; it's one of my favorite movies of the 1990s. The Lovely Bones (Paramount Pictures), the story of a 14-year-old girl trying to help solve her murder from the beyond, seemed like perfect Jackson material: an amalgam of horror, suspense, and fantasy that would combine Heavenly Creatures' themes with Lord of the Rings' budget.
If The Lovely Bones, at least for this critic, fails, it's certainly not for lack of metaphysical gumption. Jackson's imagining of the afterlife is fearlessly florid, a candy-colored Lisa Frank dreamscape that's exactly the kind of place a middle-class American girl might conjure up as her own personal heaven. It's when the movie returns to earthly life, the prosaic world of suburban cul-de-sacs and family relationships, that it falters.
Susie Salmon (played by the 15-year-old Irish actress Saoirse Ronan) is a high-school freshman in 1973, just starting to chafe at her parents' protectiveness and nursing her first real crush. On her way home from school one day, she's waylaid by a creepy neighbor (Stanley Tucci, barely recognizable in a blond comb-over) and murdered. (This is no spoiler; Susie makes her ghostly status known in the opening voice-over, and we witness her killer's identity soon after.) For the rest of the film, she remains in a limbolike place called "the in-between," trying to send symbolic messages to her family members that the guy who did her in lives right across the street.
The Lovely Bones also exists in the in-between, located somewhere in the interstices between thriller, fantasy, crime procedural (Michael Imperioli, The Sopranos' Christopher, plays the detective who tries to catch Susie's killer), and family-in-dissolution drama. Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz play Susie's grief-addled parents (they also have two younger children, played by Rose McIver and Christian Thomas Ashdale). There are moments that remind you what a master craftsman Jackson can be, like a pulse-pounding suspense scene in which Susie's sister ransacks the killer's house for evidence. But as Susie learns that avenging her death may matter less than giving her family a chance to heal, the movie takes on a weirdly Oprah-esque tone, as if determined to turn child murder into an occasion for personal growth. Scene by scene, the movie alternates between prurient violence and sentimental uplift. If it weren't for the luminous performance of Saoirse Ronan (who, I've said it before and I'll say it again, is going to be a huge star), this would be the kind of movie you'd give up on halfway through.
Unfortunately, the wonderfully expressive Ronan appears only as a silent specter in the scenes back on earth, which comprise most of the film. The characters of the parents are unfocused; Wahlberg and Weisz are given little to do other than mourn flamboyantly. Weisz's role in particular makes no sense. When her grief drives her to leave the family for a stint on a migrant farm (picking oranges in a fetching hat fit for the Sun-Maid raisin girl), you lose all interest in the mother's trajectory. And Susan Sarandon, in a painful comic interlude as the kicky drunken grandmother, seems to be passing through on sabbatical from some other movie universe. Though Tucci transforms himself admirably—this lumbering, sweaty pervert is light-years from the suave roles he usually chooses—his character is overdrawn enough to have come straight from a PSA warning children to keep away from strangers. Jackson is going to get ridiculed for the sappiness of his CGI-enhanced celestial visions, but the cotton-candy snow slopes, enchanted gazebos, and football-field-sized blooming roses that Susie encounters in heaven are more believable than anything that happens in The Lovely Bones' version of the real world.
Slate V: The critics on The Lovely Bones and other new releases