Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Review: "The Lovely Bones"

I haven't read "The Lovely Bones," Alice Sebold's much-praised novel about a 14-year-old girl named Susie Salmon who is brutally murdered and watches from heaven as events transpire on Earth after her death. So I can't say how faithful an adaptation the team from "The Lord of the Rings" has given us.

As a movie, "Bones" has fits and starts. But the good ultimately outweighs the not-so-good.

Director Peter Jackson, who co-wrote the script with Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, adroitly handles the dream-like sequences of Susie's existence in the "in-between" of heaven and earth, a landscape that shifts and swirls with her imagination via computer-generated effects. This is dangerous material -- handled poorly, and you get "What Dreams May Come" -- and Jackson deftly keeps the fantasy from overwhelming the film.

But much of the earthbound action feels discombobulated. From what I've gathered, the movie shortens the time span of the book and dumps a lot of subplots (such as Susie's mother having an affair with the detective investigating her case).

So the way Jackson et al present it, "Bones" unspools as an otherworldly murder-mystery, with the audience knowing the killer's identity up front and waiting for the people in the movie to catch up.

That brings us to the one unqualified success of this film, Stanley Tucci as the Salmon's neighbor and secretive serial killer, Mr. Harvey. This is the one of the creepiest screen villains since Hannibal Lecter. Tucci's Mr. Harvey, in a floppy blonde comb-over and almost colorless contact lenses, is like a photo negative of normality.

Mr. Harvey's placid exterior hides a man with a hunger for inflicting pain, and a meticulous craftiness for carrying out his murders while hiding in plain sight. The way Tucci rolls his jaw and sighs while watching his victims-to-be, he suggests an odd, ancient bird of prey pretending not to notice the helpless critters scampering nearby.

Saorise Ronen, who received an Oscar nomination for her role in "Atonement" two years ago, gives an assured performance as Susie, a normal middle-class kid in 1973 Pennsylvania. She takes pictures and dreams of being a photographer, has minor conflicts with friends, and has a crush on a dreamy older boy named Ray Singh (Reece Ritchie).

But when Mr. Harvey lures her into an underground den he's built in a cornfield, she's caught and killed. Jackson depicts this obliquely, never showing the actual rape, throat-slitting and dismemberment.

Susie initially thinks she got away, but quickly discovers she's caught in a netherworld where she can watch the living, but cannot communicate with them. (Except for ... well, wait and see.)

Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz play Susie's parents, and Rose McIver is her younger sister. The father becomes obsessed with the search for the killer, investigating his neighbors and constantly badgering the police detective (Michael Imperioli) about her case.

Mrs. Salmon soon wigs out and leaves the family, while her boozy mother (Susan Sarandon) moves in to take up the slack.

At two-and-a-quarter hours, "The Lovely Bones" is either too long or too short. The dynamics of the family feel like they should be at the center of the story, but the movie never quite coalesces around them. I still recommend it for Tucci's performance if nothing else -- it's that strong.

3 stars

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