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The moments of brilliance sprinkled throughout The Lovely Bones suffocate under the weight of great expectations and muddled implementation.

Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones is dark and static 

click to enlarge Saoirse Ronan in the afterlife in "The Lovely Bones" - PHOTO COURTESY OF DREAMWORKS STUDIOS
  • Photo courtesy of DreamWorks Studios
  • Saoirse Ronan in the afterlife in "The Lovely Bones"

The Lovely Bones opens Friday throughout the Triangle

If anything seemed like a sure thing, it was the film adaptation of The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold's mega-best-seller—it remained on The New York Times hardback best-seller list for more than a year—directed by Oscar winner Peter Jackson, helmsman of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong and, apropos of the dark subject of The Lovely Bones, Heavenly Creatures.

Surprisingly, apart from Stanley Tucci's acclaimed turn as serial killer George Harvey, The Lovely Bones has been shut out of the awards-season accolades. Frankly, some of the catcalls are nitpicky and unjustified. One of the most repeated criticisms is Jackson's decision not to shoot the book's gruesome, emotional touchstone, in which Harvey rapes and dismembers 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan, Oscar-nominated for Atonement). Jackson proclaimed such a scene would "make it a film that I wouldn't want to watch" and that he had "no interest" in filming "anything that depicted violence toward a young person in a way that was serious."

Jackson's larger, more cogent point is that the lurid rendering of such a heinous act is so combustible that it would suck the oxygen out of the rest of the film. Indeed, The Lovely Bones is principally the story of Susie's journey to an afterlife called "the in-between," where she looks down on not only her killer but also her family and friends as they struggle to cope with her death.

Jackson's aesthetic choices with Sebold's story are risky and problematic—if sometimes successful. His ceaseless psychedelic representations of Susie's post-death perspective are seemingly lifted from Terry Gilliam's cutting room floor. But the tableau is occasionally bucolic and evocatively spiritual. When Jack (Mark Wahlberg), Susie's grieving father, smashes the collection of ships-in-a-bottle he and his deceased daughter once worked on together, the juxtaposition of life-size shipwrecks that simultaneously occur along a rocky coastline in Susie's afterlife is an affecting blend of bombast and melancholy.

The real problem with The Lovely Bones is that Jackson seems caught in his own in-between world. For starters, he makes too much of the book's early-1970s suburban setting, a milieu that speaks more to Sebold's age (born in 1963) than any meaningful approximation of "more innocent times." More significantly, Jackson takes the book's cumbersome plot points and lacquers them with jolting narrative and tonal shifts. The story's meditative core metastasizes into a psychological thriller, police procedural, revenge saga, love story, coming-of-age tale, dark comedy and, yes, spiritual odyssey. Some of these subplots work well, but on the whole, the result is schizophrenic and strangely emotionless.

Wahlberg proves too young and emotionally shallow to portray the tormented Jack. As the clairvoyant Ruth and Susie's would-be heartthrob, Ray, Carolyn Dando and Reece Ritchie, respectively, seemingly studied at the Twilight acting school. The rest of the otherwise game cast is squandered: Susan Sarandon's role as boozy Grandma Lynn is played for incongruous comic relief; the part of Abigail (Rachel Weisz), Susie's mom, is edited down to the point of inertia; Lindsey (Rose McIver), Susie's sister, primarily plays Nancy Drew and jogs around her neighborhood ... a lot.

Even the precocious Ronan is reduced to monotonous narration and gaping at green screens. Her talents, like the other moments of brilliance sprinkled throughout The Lovely Bones, suffocate under the weight of great expectations and muddled implementation.

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