Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review: THE LOVELY BONES (dir. Peter Jackson)

As anyone who finds themselves in such a position is required to acknowledge, I have to admit that I have not read the novel upon which co-writer/director Peter Jackson's latest film is based. I have no idea if it's the masterpiece many have proclaimed it to be or the tepid fare so often assumed of bestsellers.

This is just to say that I ultimately don't know what sunk Jackson's film, if it's reverence for the beloved novel or an almost startling lack of creative chops. At the very least, he and his co-writers, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, are apparently incapable of recognizing basic contrivance and the necessity of cross-checking your instincts. For as bad as The Lovely Bones often is, it's very clear that Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens went all the way with their idea, which I always respect, even when I don't particularly like the result, which can only be described as an honest failure.

Because, honestly, nobody would ever make a film like this if they didn't believe in it wholeheartedly. The movie is, frankly, too stupid for anybody to ever make this as a side project, on a whim, or with pure profit in mind. There's nothing crass or cynical about the film. There are just scenes either too dramatically excruciating (without spoiling anything, a kiss at the climax of the film, for example), too derivative (a cleaning-up-the-house montage), or too absurd (a fall down a cliff reminiscent of The Simpsons, but played for drama) to be included not just in this movie, but in any movie. I'd like to believe Jackson was stretching himself with some of the things he tries here (particularly that kiss), but the truth is that there are parts of this film that nobody could make work. And many of the parts somebody COULD make work, Jackson is too eager to make them work on his terms to ever make them work on dramatic terms. In an interview with the man we know to be Susie's murderer, Jackson cuts between the police detective and the murderer looking through bits of the murderer's dollhouse to talk to each other, which is just one of the many absurdly suspicious behaviors the murderer has (others include standing in windows staring at people).

There are many parts that work, if only coincidentally - give Jackson a suspense scene, and he'll milk every drop from it. The two major suspense sequences in the film - one involving the lead-up to Susie Salmon's murder, the other involving Susie's sister rooting through the house of the man she (correctly) believes murdered Susie - are gangbusters. They twist your stomach to the point of breaking, and Jackson's much-admired, much-maligned (depending on who you talk to) camera style (constantly swerving, whooshing, craning, panning, etc.) is perfectly suited to such moments. And also, dammit, the scenes in the in-between, where Susie goes after her murder and before Heaven (i.e. where she spends most of the film's running time), are genuinely delightful and really well realized. Considering all the breaks Avatar's been getting for its visual design, I'm more than happy to cut The Lovely Bones some slack for its really wonderful creation.

But like Cameron's absurdly successful movie, Jackson's achievement in those areas does not make up for his complete failure in others. Unlike Cameron's film, Jackson's passion for the film does carry over, which for me anyway, made it a much more interesting watch, even if I wasn't nearly as caught up with it as he was.

Oh, and on a final note, they could not have cast Mark Wahlberg's part better. If anybody is better suited to expressing the film's completely unearned sentimentality, it's him. His sincerity in nearly every role he takes is astonishing, considering how few times neither he nor the film ever earn it. Sure, a better actor might have made the role, and consequently the film, work a lot better, but there's something about having an actor on exactly the same wavelength of the film - so sincere it's silly - that makes it feel so much better.

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