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BY Steven D. Greydanus
Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones paints an unconvincingly ham-fisted, sometimes ridiculous picture of what happens when someone dies. No, I’m not talking about the film’s attempt to portray the afterlife with kaleidoscopic montages of trippy concept art. I’m willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt, there.
But suspension of belief has its limits. A 14-year-old girl has been brutally assaulted and murdered, and as her grieving father Jack (Mark Wahlberg) lies in bed holding his sobbing wife Abigail (Rachel Weisz), he tearily assures her, “We’re going to get through this. I’ll take care of us. I’m going to make it right.”
Well, perhaps in the throes of new grief, a man might say something that inane. But then, months later, frustrated by the failure of the police to catch the killer, Dad begins stalking the neighbors looking for anything suspicious, and reporting perceived hot tips to the detective on the case — much to the ongoing pain of his wife.
“Herman Stolfas, just across the street,” Jack begins. “Now he appears to be perfectly normal, but Len … the man wears adult diapers.”
“Herman is eighty years old,” Abigail interjects for the detective’s benefit.
“I followed him in the supermarket,” Jack continues as if Mom hadn’t spoken. “His shopping cart was full of them.”
“He has a prostate problem,” Abigail adds.
But Jack is not to be deterred: Is Len checking mental health records, criminal records, family histories? “Have I mentioned taxes? You can tell a lot about a person from taxes!”
The scene plays like parody, but the filmmakers are serious. As Abigail screams, “Can’t you just leave it alone?” and storms out of the room, we’re meant to feel that their marriage is in jeopardy, but neither character has been fleshed out enough for us to feel that a real relationship was ever at stake.
It doesn’t help that Jack’s response, when Len points out the obvious (“She’s not coping well”), is to bring in Abigail’s flaky, booze-swilling, pill-popping mother, played by Susan Sarandon as broadly as if she were playing, say, Amy Adams’s domineering mother in Julie & Julia. She’s the kind of mother who greets her grieving daughter with an appraising glance and asks (like it was a judgment, not like she’s worried about her health or anything), “Are you eating?” When the grandchildren wonder if they are still a family, Grandma’s reply is, “Of course we’re still a family. Your mother is in crisis. Your father’s a wreck.” What about Grandma, then? With a steely gaze, Grandma declares: “I am in charge.”
Whatever sympathy you’re feeling for Abigail at this point might be put to the test when she runs out on the family to spend her days (no joke) picking oranges on a migrant farm. Even more glaringly, Jack, who seeming regards everyone in the neighborhood as a possible suspect, never suspects the creepy single guy across the street who always seems to be sitting in his car looking in the rear view mirror or lurking in the garage watching the street. (That’s Stanley Tucci, unnerving as the creepiest movie predator since Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, and never more chilling than when he’s working hard to seem normal.)
(Warning: Major spoilers.) Then Susie’s sister Lindsey (Rose McIver in one of the more human performances) ventures into the killer’s home looking for evidence — and finds it, but barely escapes when the killer comes home and almost catches her. She bolts for home looking for her father, who’s laid up with a broken leg — only to find that her mother has unexpectedly returned. Knowing that her sister’s killer knows she’s got the goods on her, she … hesitates because she doesn’t interrupt her parents’ tender reunion. What? How does she know the dude isn’t about to show up at the door with an assault rifle at any moment?
In fact, the killer has decided to skip town, though Lindsey doesn’t know that. For some reason before fleeing he decides to take the time to dispose of Susie’s body. As he’s in the process of doing so, he happens to be spotted by two people who don’t know what he’s doing, but have a bad feeling about it: a psychically sensitive girl who is able to perceive Susie, and a boy who had a thing for Susie in life. At this crucial juncture, Susie returns from heaven to take temporary possession of the girl’s body so that she can communicate with the boy ... to have him stop the villain from disposing her body? No: to get the first kiss she missed out on when she was murdered. So there she is snogging while her corpse is literally vanishing into a sinkhole, never to be found and buried by her family.
On many of these points, I gather, the film diverges from Alice Seybold’s novel; and perhaps of these choices and behaviors that do appear in the book, perhaps some of them made more sense in their original context. From the excerpts I’ve read, the book appears to be more concerned with how Susie’s death affects those left behind than the whole thriller aspect of tracking down the killer.
Insofar as the novel is concerned with Susie’s journey in the afterlife, it seems to be, in effect, a coming-of-age novel disguised as a paranormal thriller. Susie looks down from her own personal heaven while her family grieves and her killer plans his next attack. Even in heaven, though, Susie continues to grow up, vicariously participating in the lives of her loved ones on earth (in the novel, when she takes possession of that other woman’s body, she gets more than just a first kiss).
The film, though, plays as a straight-up paranormal thriller, largely jettisoning the coming-of-age overtones and reducing the character drama to caricatures. Did the filmmakers ever ask themselves how their human drama would play on its own terms if the heavenly stuff were omitted?
Perhaps all of this might be a bit less glaring if the heavenly stuff managed some sort of redemptive uplift or sense of the transcendent. But it doesn’t. Susie never comes to any deeper understanding or more enlightened insight regarding her family’s situation, her killer’s motivations, the meaning of life or anything. At one point she desperately wants revenge on her killer. Later, with no particular sense of growth or purgation, she decides it’s time to move on, and that’s all. I think had something to do with realizing how much her dad loved her, or perhaps it was when her mom visited Susie’s bedroom. For obvious reasons The Lovely Bones has been widely compared to another soppy movie about the afterlife, What Dreams May Come. Somewhat remarkably, the new film actually makes the older one seem almost profound.