Jackson’s “Bones” Rather Brittle

Let’s put the bones to rest.

In my last blog I wrote about my reservations about the novel “The Lovely Bones” being brought to the big screen … even in the capable hands of director Peter Jackson.  I was right to be skeptical, but the film is far from the total disaster that some critics have called it.  It is, however, a thin, pale representation of a complex novel that manages to capture some of the essence, but little of the soul of the story.

This commentary is mostly for folks who’ve read the book and seen the movie, but everyone’s welcome aboard for the ride.  I guess the main point I have to make is that Alice Sebold’s novel is the true work of art here.  The movie is a heartfelt interpretation that, unfortunately, only manages to skim the surface.  The main plot points are there … a murdered teenage girl watches over the world she left behind from a heaven-like, in between world … but most of the complex characters in the drama are reduced to cutouts in the movie.

The one exception is Saoirse Ronan as Susie Salmon.  She is positively luminous as the girl who will be forever fourteen.  Susie is the only character that Jackson seems to truly understand.  Ronan connects seamlessly with Susie’s teen heart and perspective … loving, goofy, vindictive, she gets it all right.

The problem is that Susie is the narrator of the story, not its sole focus or point.  The lovely bones of the title refer to the relationships that grow among people connected to Susie after her death.  In almost every case Jackson and his writing team botch the supporting stories of Susie’s family and friends.

Let’s do the roll call.

Mark Wahlberg as Susie’s dad … he has the grief stricken look of a man who’s lost his daughter, but his big scene smashing his ships-in-a-bottle doesn’t feel earned.  We haven’t seen enough of his relationship with Susie to really feel his pain.  It’s a programmed response, not an organic one.

Rachel Weisz as Susie’s mom … this wonderful actress is totally wasted.  Jackson only gives us one brief glimpse into the depth of her character when he shows us her bedside book pile morphing from challenging literature to house and home tomes.  In the novel, Susie’s death shatters a world that was already showing serious cracks.  Her affair with the detective investigating the murder case is left out entirely.  With no depth how are we supposed to care?

Rose McIver as Susie’s sister Lindsey … she’s a gamer and does well with a reduced story line.  In the novel we’re allowed to see her grow, mature and love … the movie pretty much leaves her in the role of Harriet The Spy.  Too bad.

Susan Sarandon as Grandma Lynn … oy. Played strictly for comic relief, boozy and cliched.  Not good.  Not good at all.

Michael Imperioli as the detective.  Great 70’s hair and wardrobe.  Nothing else.

Reece Ritchie as Ray.  He’s supposed to be Susie’s high school crush, but he looks like a college grad student.  A ridiculous and insulting casting choice.

Carolyn Dando as Ruth.  Another great character in the novel, totally marginalized in the movie.  The goth girl look is right, though like Ritchie she’s too old for the role.  Were there no decent teen actors available?!

Stanley Tucci as the killer.  Jackson gives Tucci, a brilliant actor, lots of rope.  We get a thoroughly creepy character study in evil.  Yes, the spectre of Mr. Harvey is always there in the novel, but Sebold is able to move the reader away from him with Susie’s narrative.  He’s in your face in the movie, too much of a presence for me. 

I know I haven’t said a whole lot of positive things about the movie, but honestly I’m not hating on it.  Jackson’s been hammered for some of his CGI set pieces for Susie’s heaven, but I thought they worked pretty well.  Listen, even in a watered down version “The Lovely Bones” is a compelling story.  It just happens to work much better on the page than on the screen.

Your thoughts, welcome as always.

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