February 07, 2010

MOVIES: The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson, 2009)

How many ways does this movie go wrong? I'm not sure I can count that high.

Jackson's version of Alice Sebold's novel about a murdered teenager is an uneasy mix of horror, family drama, and CGI extravaganza; it never finds a consistent tone, and the actors often seem to be starring in different movies from each other.

Saoirse Ronan stars as 14-year-old Susie Salmon, the latest victim of George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), a serial killer who has lured eight or nine other girls to their deaths. (The fact that Harvey is the killer is no spoiler; we learn that within the first fifteen minutes of the movie.) Susie watches as her family struggles to accept her death, a struggle that Susie herself shares, which is why she remains in "the in-between," a sort of way station between earth and heaven. Ronan's performance is the best thing in the movie; she does a nice job of capturing the way that girls that age get caught up in their own romantic fantasies.

Tucci's performance, on the other hand, is embarrassing. One of the cardinal rules of acting is that villains don't think of themselves as villains; if you're playing the bad guy, you have to find some way to understand or justify what the character thinks of as proper, justified behavior. Tucci, on the other hand, is playing Harvey as The Pervert from his first scene; he might as well be wearing a neon sign that reads, "Hi, I'm the Serial Killer." It's a performance filled with awkward tics and creepy laughter, and not for an instant does the character feel remotely human.

Beaming in from another movie world is Susan Sarandon, who plays Susie's chain-smoking, booze-guzzling grandmother like the reincarnation of Bette Davis. It's not an uninteresting bit of work; it just doesn't have anything to do with this movie.

And then there's Jackson's CGI creation of the in-between, which is meant to be an eerie, enchanting fantasy world, but is merely an unpleasant, cheap looking mess. Trees with leaves that fly away like birds, cornfields that turn into swamps, a gazebo that pops up everywhere, seasons that change instantly -- it's an incoherent hodgepodge of effects for their own sake.

By the end of the movie, I was cringing at the tastelessness of some of the scenes -- an in-between reunion of all of Harvey's victims, Harvey's final comeuppance (which plays so much like a classic Simpsons scene that I expected to hear Tucci yell "D'oh!"), Susie's creepy first kiss -- and I was utterly flabbergasted at how badly wrong the movie had gone.

I'm not convinced that it was possible to adapt this novel to the screen successfully, but Peter Jackson has certainly failed to do so, and failed in spectacular fashion.

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