Some admirers of Alice Sebold’s best-selling novel are upset, we’re told, about what Peter Jackson’s adaptation of “The Lovely Bones” has omitted—specifically, the rape and murder of fourteen-year old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), who narrates the film, as she did the book, while looking down from heaven, or a heavenly antechamber, as her parents Jack (Mark Wahlberg) and Abigail (Rachel Weisz) try to deal with her death and her sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) comes to suspect their creepy neighbor George (Stanley Tucci) of the crime. But the director was quite right to relegate those events, which are manageable on the page, to off-screen status; they would have been repulsive if shown, even in some discreet, arty fashion (which would have been dishonest anyway).
The real problem with the picture isn’t what’s omitted but what it contains, and more importantly its style. One longs for the pitch-perfect mixture of reality and hallucinatory fantasy that Jackson brought to another study of adolescent girlish life—and death—in his masterful “Heavenly Creatures” of fifteen years ago. One can sense that he’s trying for a similar effect here, but in the decade and a half since he’s become so mesmerized with optical effects that any sense of simplicity now seems beyond him. “The Lovely Bones” is a fussy, artificial piece of work drained of emotion and humanity by extravagant effects and directorial flamboyance. What should have been deeply moving is instead chilly, remote and unaffecting.
The best part of the film is the beginning, in which Ronan paints a thoroughly convincing portrait of a vivacious child in a typical suburban home, with loving parents and trouble-making siblings Lindsey and Buckley (Christian Ashdale). She even pulls off a melodramatic sequence in which she saves her brother’s life by driving him to the hospital like the behind-the-wheel neophyte she is. But she’s being watched by George (Tucci, encouraged to overplay the villain in a way that renders him nearly cartoonish), who lures her to an elaborate underground playhouse he’s constructed in a field and there kills her; the date is December 6, 1973. But her spirit flees the place, making contact with outsider classmate Ruth (Carolyn Dando) in its escape.
In the aftermath of her disappearance, Susie observes from an ever-changing pre-heavenly place the disintegration of her family under the stress of her loss. Jack is obsessed with discovering the truth about her death, constantly pressuring the hapless detective, Len Fenerman (Michael Imperioli), assigned to the case and engaging in dangerous investigations himself when the police fail him. His behavior drives away Abigail, occasioning the arrival of Grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon), a boozy, hard-bitten old broad, to care for the children in her absence. Meanwhile Ruth makes contact with Ray (Reece Ritchie), the impossibly handsome teen Susie had arranged her first date with just before her murder.
These earthly interludes have a few high points, most notably a scene in which George is nearly caught by Fenerman when the cop visits his home and becomes interested in an intricate dollhouse the engineering-savvy killer is constructing, and even more one in which Lindsey steals into George’s house and finds an incriminating journal showing his plans for capturing Susie and his earlier victims. Both show Jackson’s grasp of suspense-generating technique, worthy of Hitchcock. But otherwise the earthbound material is flat, including the peculiar ending in which George gets his just deserts in a fashion that suggests an invisible hand at work. And apart from Ronan and McIver, the acting is surprisingly weak. Wahlberg is never really convincing as the tormented father, Weisz is wasted, Sarandon’s grandiose turn seems to come out of another movie altogether, Dando and Ritchie are impassive, and even Tucci, expert craftsman that he is, can’t construct more than a caricature.
But if the worldly sections of the picture mostly disappoint, the otherworldly ones are bizarrely wrongheaded. It’s not exactly clear that Jackson and his effects team were aiming for; perhaps an adolescent’s candy-colored, variegated vision of the great beyond. But whatever the intent, the result is just garish and confusing. (Why George’s other victims seem to congregate there, waiting for Susie to cut her ties to the mundane world before moving on to heaven beside her, is never explained, for instance.) The result isn’t unlike that of the Robin Williams bomb “What Dreams May Come” from 1998; but the wildly extravagant “heavenly” effects in that picture won an Oscar, so the ones here might have done just as well were it not for “Avatar.”
Sebold’s novel has a great many admirers, and Jackson a loyal following. But this misguidedly flamboyant, curiously tone-deaf adaptation of “The Lovely Bones” is unlikely to please either.