Alice Sebold's best-selling novel, The Lovely Bones, is many things: a sentimental ghost story, a literate crime novel, and, in its best moments, an intimate character study set in 1970s American suburbia. Director Peter Jackson's adaptation grasps the first two aspects but, unfortunately, fails to capture the third. Strong characters are the novel's musculature, providing its definition and thematic strength; without this asset the film is a murky mess -- both facile and unfocused. Conceptually it is a genre mash-up; imagine the mutant hybrid of Seven and What Dreams May Come: in turns too gruesome for sentimentality-seekers and too saccharine for gore-seekers.
For those unfamiliar with the novel, The Lovely Bones is the story of a fourteen-year-old girl named Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) whose idyllic childhood is abruptly ended when the solitary man from across the street rapes and murders her in an underground enclosure he built in the middle of a cornfield. Here credit must be given to Jackson for his tasteful handling of the material. All violence is mercifully implied (rare in this "show-all" age) and while our imaginations may conjure up some disturbing visuals, it is certainly preferable to the alternative. After her murder, Susie's soul ascends to heaven, or, more precisely, "The In-between" -- a kind of limbo for those souls who are not reconciled to their departure from earth. From this vantage point she follows the lives of her family, her first love and even her killer, Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci).
In the novel, she not only follow the events of their lives, but seeks to understand their internal lives in a way she was unable to do while alive. Just as the pristine suburban exterior conceals homicidal maniacs, Susie discovers her loved ones possess hidden sadness, talents and joy outside of their roles as mother/father/sister/etc. In the film, on the other hand, the only thing we learn about Susie's family is they are very sad and want to find her killer. Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz's talents are utterly wasted as her melancholy parents. Though hailing from a different movie altogether, Susan Sarandon offers the only relief from the Salmon's sepulchral gloom as the chain-smoking, alcoholic grandmother who seems about as perturbed by the loss of a granddaughter as spilling a martini. As Mr. Harvey, Stanley Tucci is pretty much your run-of-the-mill kiddy-rapist/murderer cliché: bad comb-over, thick glasses and when he speaks it sounds like his mouth is full of cotton balls.
"So, alright," you're most likely thinking right now, "there's a lot to be desired in the characterization but how does it look?! I mean this is a Peter Jackson film after all." Well, initially it looks fantastic. Jackson realizes 1970s suburbia with an immaculate eye for color -- each shot a kaleidoscope of burnt orange, mustard yellow, avocado, brick and royal blue. He also perfectly captures the period details, from the cut of Susie's dad's pants to the David Cassidy poster on her bedroom wall. However, when the setting moves upwards, the visual quality moves downwards. Apparently the afterlife looks just like a late 90s computer game -- everything, literally everything except the actors is CGI (and not good CGI at that). For instance, a prominent setting is a gazebo whose too-perfect planes and angles reek of artifice -- you can practically see the pixel skeleton beneath a thin coat of digital paint. Wouldn't it have been easier just to build a real gazebo?
My hope is that one day Jackson will stop cramming special effects into his work, regardless of how inappropriate they may be, and start thinking about making a film with actual characters again. I know he can do it -- Heavenly Creatures is still one of my all time favorite films -- but I don't know if he ever will.