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Bleached Remains

film_bonesStory pales under opulent fx in 'The Lovely Bones'

A story about a murdered child is a tough sell. Alice Sebold evidently pulled it off in her bestselling novel "The Lovely Bones." Narrated from the afterlife by a 14-year-old girl brutally murdered by the neighborhood serial killer, it's a story of death-defying love, grief, healing and redemption.

But for those of us who haven't read the novel, only vague traces of what must have made it so meaningful survive in Peter Jackson's unwieldy adaptation of The Lovely Bones. Jackson and co-scriptwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens replicate the action of the plot—which is occasionally grim and often confusing—but never imbue it with the poetic or transformative power that would make it all amount to something. Instead, Jackson spends his creative energy attempting to depict the unknowable—the afterlife ("the in-between time") from which the young heroine tells her tale. Jackson envisions it as an opulent CGI playground of mind-blowing images, but every time we go there, we're wrenched out of the intimate human drama that should have given the film its soul.

Too bad Jackson didn't trust his actors to carry the story on their own. Poised young Saoirse Ronan (she was the troubled tween in Atonement) stars as Susie Salmon. Eldest of three kids in a tight suburban Pennsylvania family ca. 1973, Susie is fond of her siblings, adores her pretty mom (Rachel Weisz), and has an especially loving relationship with her dad, Jack (very nicely played by Mark Wahlberg). Vibrant and cheerful, Susie is on the brink of everything—womanhood, first love with a handsome classmate (Reece Ritchie), self-discovery via a new Instamatic camera, life. Until the evening she stays late after school, strays into a nearby cornfield with neighbor Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci, in owlish glasses and fusty moustache), and never makes it home.

It's possible to make a gripping drama about dead people if it's done with enough style: the glamorous cynicism of Sunset Boulevard, say, or the audacious trickery of The Sixth Sense. But Jackson's film suffers a failure of tone: Susie mentions early on that she's been murdered, but the movie unfolds in chronological time. She's still very much alive in the first 30 or 40 minutes, which the squirming audience watches with increasing dread, knowing we're going to have to witness her murder. Whatever pathos Susie wrings from this memory in the pages of Sebold's novel, it borders on prurience here, the viewer forced to watch in helpless outrage as a doomed child is lured to her grisly end.

To his credit, Jackson's handling of this scene is less graphic than we fear, but once Susie enters her limbo between Heaven and Earth, he lets the rest of the story go to hell. Grief divides the Salmons; Jack pesters the cops with tenuous "leads" toward finding the killer, while Mom deserts the family to (get this) become a migrant fruit picker in Santa Rosa, shown as a picturesque lifestyle that gives her plenty of time to write postcards and, you know, think. Family caretaking falls to hard-drinking, chain-smoking Grandma (Susan Sarandon), whose presence occasions an idiotic comic montage on bad housekeeping, and adds nothing important to the story.

Meanwhile, Susie is off larking about in the afterlife, playing dress-up with another dead girl, sailing through the cosmos. It's touching that her dad still senses her presence, but it's unclear why he's suddenly so convinced Mr. Harvey is the guy, so he follows him in the dead of night with a baseball bat. (It has something to do with Susie's hatred, which also comes out of nowhere; until that moment, she's been serene and reflective.) (For that matter, wouldn't someone skulking off to the cornfield late at night to spy on teens making out take a more circuitous route than down the main street with a flashlight?)

Time and again, Jackson overwhelms what ought to be these small moments of clarity with gigantic effects, or impossible logistics. (It takes two men to laboriously roll a heavy safe across a field that one of them apparently hauled out of a basement and loaded into his SUV all by himself.) Like Susie herself, only a ghostly afterimage of Sebold's intent remains.

THE LOVELY BONES ★★

With Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz and Stanley Tucci. Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa  Boyens, and Peter Jackson. From the novel by Alice Sebold. Directed by Peter Jackson. A Paramount release. Rated R. 135 minutes.

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