Thursday, January 21, 2010

REVIEW: The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones was not as good as I hoped it would be - but it's still a lot better than most of my fellow critics have said it is.

After the reviews started tearing  Peter Jackson's film down, I smelled something suspicious. Too many of them carped that it didn't reflect Alice Sebold's highly acclaimed novel particularly well. I rolled my eyes at the reviewers' persistent refusal to acknowledge that movies are movies and novels are novels and rarely shall the twain meet.

I haven't read the novel, but I do know that many people have a fierce emotional attachment to it. That said,  sometimes fierce emotional attachments cloud judgment. (Some may accuse me of this in my previous review).

In such cases, people are unable or unwilling to recognize that books and movies don't have to match. In fact, they don't even have to strictly resemble each other. A filmmaker should worry about making a good movie first and being faithful to the text second. And reviewers should review the movie that's up there on the screen, not some preconceived vision they had dancing in their heads.

What I saw up on the screen was a visually resplendent if occasionally muddled movie about a young girl named Susie (Saoirse Ronan)  who was raped and murdered and who looked on from the afterlife as her family tried, often in vain, to pick up the pieces.  But it's not just Susie's family that struggles to move on - Susie herself does too. And how the movie visualizes that makes it fascinating, as the trouble at home seems to resonate in "the in-between," as the movie calls it.

The beginning of the film is especially effective as we meet the characters and director Peter Jackson's camera rushes headlong to capture the emotional tremors that so mark adolescence.  Then that camera moves nervously as the strange George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) tears everyone's world asunder with his horrible urges.

After Susie's death, the movie does not always hang together well, and it veers wildly in tone. Many of the afterlife sequences are beautiful and sobering, but then comic interludes on Earth, particularly via Susan Sarandon's dotty grandmother, threaten to throw it off the rails.

And the ending in particular is not wholly satisfying, and just might prove my point that sometimes being faithful to the book can be harmful to a film. A crucial third act climax plays much like it does in the book (according to Wikipedia) and yet it rings false onscreen. It feels too much like one of tie-it-up-with-a-bow endings that the old Hollywood Production Code used to enforce on movies to ensure every character got what they deserved.

Even with these mis-steps, two things hold the movie together: the outstanding performances of Ronan and Tucci. Tucci avoids the trap of making his character seem like a two-dimensional monster, but does not at all shy away from showing the layers of ugliness that fester beneath his genteel surface. Ronan is absolutely ideal as Susie, and the young actress proves that her Oscar nomination for Atonement wasn't a fluke. Susie runs the gamut of emotions from love to frustration to terror, and Ronan captures them all beautifully.

The Lovely Bones doesn't always work. But  it's such an ambitious film that sometimes it's even fascinating when it fails. And it's even better when it succeeds.


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