My pre­cious heaven

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The Lovely Bones, fan­tasy-thriller-drama, rated PG-13, Re­gal Sta­dium 14, 1.5 chiles

“My name was Sal­mon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was four­teen when I was mur­dered on De­cem­ber 6, 1973.” Th­ese shock­ing lines launch the first chap­ter of The Lovely Bones, Alice Se­bold’s best­selling 2002 novel, thus elim­i­nat­ing any un­cer­tainty about what will hap­pen to the book’s pro­tag­o­nist. Susie nar­rates the story of her happy life with her fam­ily in sub­ur­ban Philadel­phia and how, on one fate­ful af­ter­noon, a man from her neigh­bor­hood rapes and mur­ders her on her way home from school. From the af­ter­life, Susie watches as he cov­ers his tracks; her fa­ther, mother, sis­ter, and brother at­tempt to cope with her death and search for her killer; and her friends and her teenage crush move on and grow up.

Many fans of the novel and of di­rec­tor Peter Jack­son have been ea­gerly await­ing this film adap­ta­tion, di­rected by Jack­son, who also co-wrote the screen­play with Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh. Jack­son cut his teeth on hor­ror films like Brain­dead (1992); gar­nered crit­i­cal ac­claim for 1994’s Heav­enly Crea­tures, in which a teenage girl kills her mother with the help of her best friend; and is best known for the award-winning adap­ta­tion of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings tril­ogy. Given th­ese facts, a film deal­ing with mur­der, youth­ful fan­tasies, and things oth­er­worldly

seems like an ideal project for him. But the artis­tic li­cense Jack­son gained af­ter the suc­cess of the sprawl­ing, epic Rings films must have warped his sense of re­straint and his abil­ity to con­struct a solid story.

With its ex­act­ing at­ten­tion to pe­riod de­tail, vivid color, and sur­real land­scapes, The Lovely Bones is un­ques­tion­ably in­ter­est­ing to look at. Jack­son does a nice job of weav­ing in vis­ual rep­re­sen­ta­tions of per­fect, tiny, un­chang­ing worlds: a snow globe, minia­ture boats in bot­tles, fully out­fit­ted doll­houses, a cot­tage charm on a bracelet, bones locked in a safe. He is clearly at home in fan­tasy ter­ri­tory, but sim­plic­ity is not his long suit. His mys­ti­cal CGI af­ter­life is dis­tract­ingly over­crafted, re­sem­bling a slick Zyrtec com­mer­cial. Vis­ual py­rotech­nics over­whelm the del­i­cacy of the book’s orig­i­nal mes­sage about grief, con­so­la­tion, for­give­ness, and mem­ory. The di­rec­tor sac­ri­fices depth and feel­ing for showoffy vis­ual spec­ta­cle.

He can’t de­cide what sort of movie he wants to make, ei­ther: an oth­er­worldly fan­tasy, a sweet com­ing-of-age story, a se­rial-killer thriller, “CSI: The Movie,” a ghost story, or a fam­ily melo­drama. He cuts abruptly from poignant glimpses of the Salmons at home to Susie in the af­ter­life. In be­tween, he wedges a po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tor (Michael Im­pe­ri­oli) search­ing for clues and ex­tended scenes of heart-pound­ing ten­sion, as when Susie’s sis­ter (Rose McIver) breaks into the mur­derer’s house to look for ev­i­dence. Th­ese mo­ments of Hitch­cock­ian sus­pense are the movie’s finest. Nev­er­the­less, all the back-and-forth un­der­cuts the ten­sion and emo­tional im­pact. And lest we miss any­thing, Jack­son has Susie nar­rate al­most ev­ery scene and dis­close ev­ery de­tail in an am­pli­fied voice-over whis­per.

Jack­son does elicit some fine per­for­mances from his ac­tors. Icy­blue-eyed Saoirse Ro­nan ( Atone­ment) has a sweet ethe­re­al­ity that makes her the per­fect choice for Susie. Un­for­tu­nately, for two thirds of the movie, Jack­son re­quires her to do lit­tle else but stare or look con­cerned. MarkWahlberg and RachelWeisz han­dle the roles of Susie’s griev­ing par­ents sen­si­tively enough, al­though both char­ac­ters are woe­fully flat and un­de­vel­oped, and they aren’t given much op­por­tu­nity to do any se­ri­ous act­ing. Stan­ley Tucci— hid­ing be­hind a blond comb-over, a creepy mus­tache, and his best pedo-smile — gives a spine-tin­gling, flesh-crawl­ing per­for­mance as Ge­orge Har­vey, Susie’s mur­derer. Su­san Saran­don makes a brief ap­pear­ance as Susie’s boozy grand­mother, who sweeps in to help the Salmons cope with ne­glected daily tasks; though her kooky char­ac­ter seems out of place, she’s still a wel­come re­lief from the al­ter­nat­ing mo­rose and sappy mo­ments.

Fans of the novel will note the ab­sence of cer­tain sig­nif­i­cant el­e­ments. Susie’s rape isn’t men­tioned, and her mur­der is only sug­gested. Sure, th­ese omis­sions make the movie less up­set­ting; nev­er­the­less, I’m both­ered by a film that uses the hor­ri­ble story of a young girl’s grue­some death as a spring­board for showy fan­tasy se­quences and sac­cha­rine sen­ti­men­tal­ity about cop­ing, “let­ting go,” and clo­sure. Rather than aveng­ing her death or keep­ing her mur­derer from killing again, Susie uses her one op­por­tu­nity to come back to Earth to kiss the boy she once had a crush on. The af­ter­life is a col­or­ful place where she and other mur­dered girls romp to­gether through the grass in a golden sun­set glow. This idyl­lic vi­su­al­iza­tion seems to sug­gest that you shouldn’t be up­set if you’re mur­dered, and your fam­ily shouldn’t grieve.

I’m not sure that Se­bold’s book should have been brought to the screen at all. Things that work on the page and come to life in a reader’s mind don’t al­ways pack the same punch when re­al­ized on film. Of course, given his suc­cess with fan­tas­tic, oth­er­worldly sub­jects, I can un­der­stand the al­lure of the sub­ject mat­ter for Jack­son. But this story’s real heart beats in the parts that take place on terra firma. If he had left some­thing to our imagination — or maybe just spent less money on mak­ing life af­ter death look so spec­tac­u­lar— Jack­son might have re­tained the novel’s sweet, sad-buthope­ful tone. Even in movies, some things are bet­ter pic­tured than seen.

The devil you know doesn’t wear Prada: Mark Wahlberg and Stan­ley Tucci

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