You would think that if any director were capable of infiltrating a big studio Oscar-baiter born out of weighty, worthy literature and smuggling out a picture brimming with ideas, then surely Peter Jackson is that man. Returning to the kind of psycho-sexual subject matter that first garnered him acclaim, and marrying it with the ethereal, other-worldly spectacle that has come to define his noughties work, Jackson, along with co-writers Philippa Boyens and wife Fran Walsh, combine to bring to life author Alice Sebold's somber sleeper hit about a sadly all-too-literal heavenly creature.
After personally stumped up the mullah for the rights you would think Jackson might have had a better idea of where exactly he was going with this project. Instead the great man, just recently anointed "Sir" Peter Jackson, was seemingly dazzled to the point of sheer distraction by the enticing prospect of unleashing his Weta effect's studio with a mandate to visually realize the great beyond. An appalling narrative disaster The Lovely Bones is a gigantic leap into the chasm of self-indulgence by a director who quite simply should know better. Lazily scripted and poorly cast, this wannabe art film misfires on almost every conceivable level. Major themes are announced rather than dramatized – "Murder changes everything" apparently – and the relentless soft focus drifts from a hazy dream to a queasy nightmare as Jackson wanders the afterlife with no more guided purpose than the story's unfortunate protagonist.
Having been heaped with praise for her Oscar-nommed debut as the tragically innocent catalyst for disaster in 2007's Atonement, Irish actress Saoirse Ronan looks to cement her status in the role of Susie Salmon. The awful victim of a terrible murder, Susie peers down at her family from a celestial purgatory as her grieving mother and father (Rachel Weisz & Mark Wahlberg) struggle to move-on, and her inconspicuous killer (Stanley Tucci) prepares to murder again.
As the story begins young Susie ponders the penguin in her snow globe, safe in her father's reassurance that he is happy and content with his world. This is Susie Salmon – a soul of endless compassion weighted down with nothing more than the gentle tingle of a first crush. However, once deprived of her future her only task is to run aghast through Jackson's CGI gauntlet, a permanent expression of gaping astonishment and vague panic fixed to her face. Jackson captures the letter of the prose, but never penetrates the deep core of melancholy that seeped out into the book.
Back on Earth Mark Wahlberg, who having proven himself a non-starter as both action man (Max Payne) and everyman (The Happening), finally falls from his tightrope walk between laughing stock and national treasure and crash lands in the territory of the unwatchable. Tucci, by contrast, is the most effective thing in the entire film, playing against type as the twitchy, leering neighbor-cum-serial killer with a perverse penchant for dollhouses whose every breath makes you quiver. He is at the center of the film's most effective sequence where, momentarily stripped of his digital arsenal, Jackson makes inventive use of the camera to suffocating effect as Susie, lured to a subterranean playhouse by her killer, gradually begins to realize the grizzly fate that awaits her. His final reel appearance, a complete departure from the novel, is sorely misguided and so badly executed it would not look out of place in a Zucker Brother's comedy circa 1980.
The celestial sequences veer from the chaotically random (a pretend photo shoot), through the clumsily symbolic (a rose blossoms beneath a frozen lake), to the entirely redundant (an armada of ships in bottles smash upon the shore as the father trashes his hobby shop in despair). And to what end? These sequences simply lack the harmonious balance that cutting to the likes of Susan Sarandon as a comedy drunk employing her infant grandson as some kind of midget butler simply fail to provide.
Recently interviewed alongside James Cameron on the subject of the advancement of special effects and their increasingly prevalent role in storytelling, the New Zealand director was quoted as saying that he would like to fundamentally reinvent his process and streamline himself into a more efficient storytelling machine more akin to the likes of Eastwood and Soderbergh. We can only hope he follows through on his intentions. As it stands The Lovely Bones is the snow globe. It's pretty and it's novel to peer at for a while, but ultimately nothing more than hollow decoration.
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Rose McIver, Susan Sarandon, Rachel Weisz
Director: Peter Jackson
Runtime: 135 Minutes
Distributor: Paramount Pictures