New York Times DECEMBER 11, 2009 - by A. O. Scott


We all like children, and - at least in our capacity as moviegoers, book-club members and consumers of true-life melodrama - we seem to like them best when they're abused, endangered or dead. Nothing else is quite so potent a symbol of violated innocence, a spur to pious sentiment or a goad to revenge as a child in peril. This is hardly news (Charles Dickens made a nice living trafficking in the suffering of minors), but for some reason the past decade has seen an epidemic of cinematic and literary crimes against the young.

The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold's 2002 best seller, now a film directed by Peter Jackson, stands out as a singularly bold and complex treatment of this grim and apparently inexhaustible theme. In spite of the horrific act at the center of the story - the rape, murder and dismemberment of a fourteen-year-old girl - the novel is not depressing or assaultive but rather, somewhat perversely, warm, hopeful and even occasionally funny.

Ms. Sebold pushes the dead-child narrative to an emotional extreme, and at the same time undermines its exploitive tendencies, by means of a simple and radical formal device. She makes the victim, a daughter of '70s suburbia named Susie Salmon ("like the fish"), an omniscient, beyond-the-grave narrator, with a lively voice and a comfortable perch in the afterlife from which to survey the doings of her family, her friends and the neighbor who killed her. The novel is conceived with enough audacity to make this gimmick intriguing, and executed with enough art to make it effective.

Mr. Jackson's film, from a script he wrote with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, his frequent collaborators, shows less audacity and too much art. Susie's unearthly home, in the book a minimally sketched, nondenominational purgatory where the dead loiter on their way to heaven and keep tabs on unfinished business down on earth, has been expanded into a digitally rendered Wonderland of rioting metaphors, crystal seas and floating topiary. It's a mid-'70s art-rock album cover brought to life (and complemented by a score composed by the '70s art-rock fixture Brian Eno), and while its trippy vistas are sometimes ravishing, they are also distracting. Heaven, a Talking Heads song once pointed out, is "a place where nothing ever happens."

Accordingly Mr. Jackson's interest in the "in-between," as this suburb of heaven is called, is primarily visual. The drama is all down below, where the surviving members of the Salmon family contend with the loss of their eldest child. Susie's sister, Lindsey, is played by Rose McIver; her brother, Buckley, by Christian Thomas Ashdale, while George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), the reclusive, seething killer, prunes his rosebushes and decorates dollhouses. By all appearances he has gotten away with his crime, and Susie hovers in the in-between partly in the hope that she might find a way to bring him to justice.

She is, in any case, obsessed with the lives that go on without her, in particular with the ways her siblings and friends and father (Mark Wahlberg, agonized) and mother (Rachel Weisz, narcotized) deal with losing her, something the audience never has to endure. We are always in Susie's company, soothed by her voice-over narration and tickled by her coltish high spirits. This puts a curious distance between us and most of the characters in the film - it makes us, in effect, Susie's fellow ghosts - a detachment that Mr. Jackson's stylish, busy technique makes more acute. His young heroine, played with unnerving self-assurance and winning vivacity by Saoirse Ronan, cares desperately about the poor living souls left in her wake, but it is not clear that Mr. Jackson shares her concern.

Yes, he grooves on the wild color schemes and peculiar fashions of 1973. (Richard Kelly had a similar field day with 1976-vintage patterned wallpaper and fat neckties in The Box, his recent entry in the suburban-'70s-supernatural sweepstakes.) And this director's fondness for odd angles, intense close-ups and trick perspectives - he films one scene as if peering out from the rooms of a dollhouse - animates a drab Pennsylvania landscape of shopping malls and half-developed farmland. As a pictorial artifact The Lovely Bones is gorgeous. It pulses and blooms and swells with bright hues and strange vistas.

But it does not move. Or, rather, as it skitters and lurches from set piece to the next, papering the gaps with swirls of montage, it never achieves the delicate emotional coherence that would bring the story alive. My point is not that Mr. Jackson and his fellow screenwriters have taken undue liberties with the book, a complaint that some other critics have made. On the contrary, the problem with this "Lovely Bones" is that it dithers over hard choices, unsure of which aspects of Ms. Sebold's densely populated, intricately themed novel should be emphasized and which might be winnowed or condensed.

The filmmakers' evident affection for the book expresses itself as a desperate scramble to include as much of it as possible, which leaves the movie feeling both overcrowded and thin. The anguish in the Salmon household is dutifully observed: dad smashes his collection of model ships, mom withdraws and then flees to California, and in the middle of it grandma arrives, a brassy boozer played by Susan Sarandon. But there is a puppet-show quality to their grief, and also to the puzzlement of the detective (Michael Imperioli) investigating Susie's death and the sorrow of her schoolmates, Ruth (Carolyn Dando) and Ray (Reece Ritchie), the object of Susie's first and last major crush.

The title of The Lovely Bones refers to the relationships among these people that knit together in Susie's absence. In Mr. Jackson's version, though, they are hastily and haphazardly assembled, so that nothing quite fits together. The movie is a serial-killer mystery, a teenage melodrama, a domestic tragedy and a candy-hued ghost story - a cinematic version of the old parlor game in which disparate graphic elements are assembled into a single strange picture. It's sometimes called Exquisite Corpse.

Directed by Peter Jackson; written by Mr. Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, based on the novel by Alice Sebold; director of photography, Andrew Lesnie; edited by Jabez Olssen; production designer, Naomi Shohan; music by Brian Eno; produced by Mr. Jackson, Ms. Walsh, Carolynne Cunningham and Aimée Peyronnet; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 139 minutes.

WITH: Mark Wahlberg (Jack Salmon), Rachel Weisz (Abigail Salmon), Susan Sarandon (Grandma Lynn), Stanley Tucci (George Harvey), Michael Imperioli (Len Fenerman), Saoirse Ronan (Susie Salmon), Rose McIver (Lindsey Salmon), Christian Thomas Ashdale (Buckley Salmon), Carolyn Dando (Ruth) and Reece Ritchie (Ray Singh).