Every once in a while there comes along a high-profile Hollywood effects extravaganza so misguided, so full of eyebrow-raising wow-they-went-there moments that it demands to be seen—preferably on the small screen, where expectations are generally more modest and double-takes can be freely indulged by pressing the rewind button. A perfect example of this type of film is Lawrence Kasdan's Dreamcatcher (2003), a Stephen King adaptation that wraps five or six movies' worth of content into one staggeringly nutty two-and-a-quarter-hour junk opus. But another one has arrived this week on DVD and Blu-ray: Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones.
Based on the popular 2002 novel by Alice Sebold (which, I should say up front, I haven't read), The Lovely Bones chronicles the murder of the young Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) and its aftermath. The 14-year-old serves as a mystical cheerleader for the police investigation while in a liminal state between heaven and earth, depicted as a fantasyland that might well be taken for a lost level of Mario Kart 64. (The Blu-ray of this movie will likely be popular with electronics-store managers in search of outlandishly colorful floor-demo sequences for their colossal HD TVs.) The parallel real-world action takes place in 1970s Pennsylvania. AM radio blares at the breakfast table and the occasional bell-bottom sashays through the frame; snippets of Brian Eno songs crop up throughout the soundtrack.
The Salmons' supremely creepy next-door neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci, who was Oscar-nominated for the role), has the comb-over and mustache of a stereotypical menace to children, but only gradually does the family—whose elders include Jack (Mark Wahlberg), Abigail (Rachel Weisz), and Grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon)—zero in on him as a suspect. Meanwhile, back in the afterlife, Susie contemplates passing on from limbo to the bona fide Elysian fields, a rather obvious inversion of the site of her capture: a bunker underneath a fallow cornfield.
Many critics found the film downright reprehensible upon its theatrical release, what with its over-embellished portrayal of a dead teen's mostly blithe perspective—all puppies and colorful orbs—and its almost complete refusal to acknowledge her actual suffering at the hands of her murderer. Even Roger Ebert, who rarely seems to meet a movie he doesn't like these days, came out strongly against the film. "The Lovely Bones," he wrote, "is a deplorable film with this message: If you're a 14-year-old girl who has been brutally raped and murdered by a serial killer, you have a lot to look forward to. You can get together in heaven with the other teenage victims of the same killer, and gaze down in benevolence upon your family members as they mourn you and realize what a wonderful person you were."
This ickiness factor seems mostly a product of the license Jackson takes in visualizing the spirit world, not so much the material itself, which he adapted with his wife, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens. After four films—The Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong—dealing with as-photorealistic-as-possible CGI, Jackson in The Lovely Bones goes for the patently artificial. I wouldn't be surprised to learn he was directly inspired by an iTunes visualizer or this long-standing repository of blissed-out desktop wallpapers.
While it's an interesting new approach, Jackson doesn't tone down his now-trademark maximalism in trying to tell the more intimate story of a family's grief. In addition to the heavenly fantasia at the heart of the movie, the camera bobs and weaves through the Salmon home in a fluid but thoroughly restless manner. It's all fascinating to watch—though, as Ebert points out, it's almost certainly not in good taste. Watching The Lovely Bones now, with the knowledge that the film didn't prove very successful with the moviegoing public, it's probably easier to sit back and marvel at what originally had so many critics up in arms: the total incompatibility of the film's dreamy look with its ostensibly horrific subject matter.
Aside from the botched tone, so miscalculated that it has a nearly hypnotic effect, The Lovely Bones makes for great freeze-framing. Some of the moments I found particularly amusing:
- At the beginning, during a brief college-days scene featuring Jack and Abigail, the two begin making out. Abigail puts her Camus on the nightstand, knocking off a copy of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. But when she reaches back over to turn off the lamp, a copy of the very same book is visible on the table, resting underneath the lamp. IMDb lists this as a continuity error, but I like to think that in the same way Jack compulsively puts ships in bottles, Abigail collects paperback duplicates.
- The director has a cameo as a man testing a movie camera in a store. He's visible in a couple shots, slightly hunched over and wearing a period-appropriate sweater.
- The Salmons live in a small but decidedly bustling town. So you'd think the local daily newspaper would have a fairly extensive editorial apparatus, and yet these headlines are visible in a scrapbook that the murderer thumbs through: "Memorial Service to Proceed Despite No Body Found," "Sister of Slain Teen takes Top Honors."
- This is a bit of a spoiler, perhaps, but first glimpsing a photograph of George Harvey taken by Susie is a revelatory moment for her father. In the picture, the killer is tending to his rose bush, and a flower in the foreground obscures his entire face. This struck a chord with me and I had to pause for a moment before I realized what precisely it reminded me of: Wilson, the wise but never entirely visible neighbor on Home Improvement.
If I say that The Lovely Bones rewards close viewing, but mostly just in this finding-its-many-flaws sense, am I being too harsh? Probably, but it's worth savoring pedigreed misfires of this magnitude, because they don't come around all that often.