20 January 2010
a lovely mess
movie review :: the lovely bones
it's a heartwarming family movie! it's an emotional meditation on the nature of life and death! no, it's the lovely bones, peter jackson's latest film, an adaptation of alice sebold's novel of the same name.
you can never fault peter jackson for not trying. whatever he does is going to contain some elements that make it fascinating to behold and moments that will stick with you long after. that said, most of his films also contain moments that leave you cringing, wondering if you're missing some in-joke between crew members, or if his editor is trying to get back at him for something. and true to form, the lovely bones has both.
on the positive side, the premise for the story- told from the point of view of a 13 year old girl who has been murdered- is an unconventional one. saorise ronan (best known for playing keira knightley's younger sister in 'atonement') gives the lead role everything she's got and stanley tucci's neighbourhood creep/ killer is spot on. the cinematography is stunning (no surprise) and, unlike jackson's more grandiose projects, this one hearkens back to 'heavenly creatures'- the film that unleashed kate winslet on the world and what i feel is still his masterpiece. and perhaps that's part of the problem. once you start making that comparison, it's kind of hard to avoid noticing that 'the lovely bones' just fails to measure up.
as someone very close to me, a film fanatic, is fond of saying "the script is the most important thing". i sort of wish he'd talked to jackson before the latter spent a hundred million dollars putting together what i saw on screen. because if someone had been able to point out the problems with the script- its indecisiveness about what kind of film it wants to be (do we really need to stop the whole film for a five minute music sequence showing susan sarandon playing bad babysitter for her grandchildren?), the hyper-literary dialogue that sometimes borders on laughable (what works on the written page sounds oh so different coming out of someone's mouth), the perplexing decision to give the film about seven different endings, as if it were originally designed as a 'choose your own adventure' story. these are the sort of things that hobble a film from the start. whatever visual magic the director can work, whatever humanity and pathos the actors can bring to their roles, is not going to overcome the burden of a poorly written screenplay.
i'm not sure why jackson, certainly no neophyte to cinema, missed these problems. perhaps he was focused on the visual element, which is remarkable. the realistic setting- early seventies suburban america- is perfectly rendered. the early scenes look like photos of the era brought to life, complete with the hazy brown cast that seems to adhere to all pictures from the time (my mother has albums full of them). rather than going the david lynch route, jackson's suburbs appear much as they probably were- simple and strangely sterile, devoid of emotion and, for lack of a better way of putting it, devoid of life. it's easy to see where the sections set in the dream world of the afterlife came from the same imagination that created the fantasy world of 'heavenly creatures'. rather than trying to create something that feels real (as he did in the lord of the rings trilogy), jackson here focuses on creating something that appears entirely fake, with keyhole views of reality. it's great eye candy, but it can't overcome the triteness of the material.
the biggest mistake the film makes, however, is a sin of omission. with the limited character development and limited action, it is crucial that the audience feel the pain and impact of the moment where the family's average, storybook life falls apart. for unknown reasons (possibly to keep the film at a pg rating and thus open it to a wider audience), jackson elected to truncate the murder scene, so that the violence is implied but never seen. i'm not trying to say that he should have gone with a sequence à la "i spit on your grave", but without that sense of shock and horror, the audience is placed at a crucial distance. seeing is believing. (somnolent performances from the remaining family members don't help matters either.)
the result of all this is something that starts out promisingly, gets weighed down by all the different things it tries to encompass and finally falls apart. what i said earlier is true- you can't fault peter jackson for not trying. but with a result like this, you can't credit him with succeeding, either.