Allow me to begin with a brief comparison between two films that really aren't much akin. Exhibit A is Meryl Streep's surprise Oscar mobile, Julie and Julia, which I finally caught up with on DVD last night. Exhibit B is Peter Jackson's 'special' effects extravaganza The Lovely Bones, which I've just now taken in at the local multiplex. What do they have in common? Well, besides Stanley Tucci, because that's the obvious answer, though his two roles couldn't be more different. One likes to rape and murder little girls while the other enjoys passionate sex with the frumpiest of all middle aged women, Julia Child. In both roles, he's merely fine, but I digress.
What the films really have in common is that they both fumble in the same way. Each runs on two stories simultaneously unfolding alongside each other, but neither half seems to be serving the other much good. You could pluck Julie out of Julie & Julia and be no worse for wear. Yet the same holds true for Julie. Their existence in the same film amounts to nothing and the two opportunities that arise to make something of a connection between the two women come and go without ever taking seed. Based on a true story - fine - but the problem with true stories is that they tend to be boring. And it sort of is, but each half is decent enough in its own right. Together, nothing special.
But The Lovely Bones is no better off. After the first 15 minutes or so, our narratives diverge. On one hand, we have little Susie Salmon bouncing around in the afterlife, while back in the 1970s, her family struggles with the aftermath of her murder. Jackson attempts to connect the two halves, but they either come across as cringe worthy (her not-quite boyfriend's reflection on the water) or they feel hurried (the ships in bottles crashing on the coast). Mostly, it's this second problem that plagues Susie's part of the film. I take no issue with Jackson's fountain of CGI imagery. It's absolutely gorgeous to look at, but it's all too dam fleeting. We move from one landscape to another with seemingly little meaning, and a host of beautiful images are undermined by there lack of gravity. And then we get some moments - the ships in bottles, or the rose frozen in the ice - they deserve to be dwelt on, because they actually connect back to her Earthly life. But like everything else, they're gone in a flash. Like Julie and Julia, our connections to the other narrative are squandered.
But Susie's half was at least otherwise fascinating. The family struggle on the other side is underdeveloped to a maddening extent. Like Rachel Weisz's completely unnecessary disappearance for second half of the film. A major problem because 1) it comes out of fucking nowhere, 2) I hear she actually had an interesting subplot in the book, and 3) she's fucking Rachel Weisz, one of the most criminally underused actresses working today (I will now insert a plug for The Brothers Bloom, in which she simply rocks). Susan Sarandon does boozy almost as well as Stanley Tucci does creepy, but neither rise above the fairly maudlin material. Mark Walberg is decent, which is marvelous if you're Mark Walberg, so let's give the guy a hand. I kid, he's been in my good graces ever since I first saw Boogie Nights.
So, this turned out disappointing. I didn't hate it, but there's so much amiss here - some of which is Jackson's fault no doubt, but the limitations of the source material likely deserve a share of the blame. I'll grant that the cinematography was gorgeous, yet not effective as it could easily have been. And Saoirse Ronan was pretty wonderful, though not as good as she was in Atonement. Really, I'll be able to justify this film if it manages to push her career forward. I think she's leagues better than the Abigail Breslins and Dakota Fannings of her generation.