Peter Jackson already has created Middle Earth and Skull Island, so what's a teenager's vision of purgatory?
After spending the decade playing with hobbits and dragons and giants apes (there is a dragon in The Lord of the Rings, right?), Jackson took a break for something more mundane, an adaptation of Alice Sebold's 2002 novel The Lovely Bones, which is a first-person account of the 1973 rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl, Susie Salmon (played here by Atonement's Saoirse Ronan). The book's conceit is that Susie looks down from heaven — here more of a purgatory referred to as "the in-between" — and watches her family cope with the aftermath of her death and try to find her killer.
This is Jackson's first foray into something approaching real life since 1994's Heavenly Creatures, another film concerned somewhat with the interior life of teen girls. But judging from the results, the appeal of the project to Jackson seemed to have less to do with the Susie character or the dynamic of a once-happy family in dissolution than with the chance to create a vision of the afterlife.
The purgatory scenes here have the occasional interesting image — fall leaves as a flock of birds that fly away and return to their tree in the spring — but mostly they have the look and feel of a TV commercial for allergy medication. In the afterlife, you breathe free. More mystery here would be nice, but in Jackson's world, why imply something when you have the budget and technology to show?
The opening stretch of messy but contented family life is engaging, the quick cut of a foxy Rachel Weisz's bedside reading morphing from Betty Freidan and Jean-Paul Sartre to cookbooks a tidy — if too simplified — depiction of her willing descent into domesticity. And Ronan — a striking figure of pale skin, butterscotch hair, and translucent blue eyes popping out of winter coat and homemade knit hat — seems perfectly cast. But after the rape occurs and Susie's banished to the afterworld — there are no spoilers here, Susie's murder is acknowledged in the opening lines — Ronan isn't asked to do much but traipse around Jackson's FX wonderland, wide-eyed.
Back in the real world, what should be a grief-stricken depiction of family dynamics is instead turned into an artificial, garish thriller. The whodunit aspect is odd considering the utter lack of mystery in both plotting and especially characterization. Stanley Tucci has gotten some good notices for his performance as neighborhood predator George Harvey. But with his clumsy comb-over, heavy-rimmed glasses, and pressed tan jacket, Tucci might as well have "creepy molester dude" stamped across his forehead.
The Lovely Bones works best in suspense scenes that take place within George's house — George and a police detective (Michael Imperioli) circling each other around one of George's immaculately built dollhouses, or Susie's suspicious younger sister (Rose McIver) breaking and entering. But whenever Jackson tries to deal with the difficult emotional terrain of his story, he lapses into glossy sentimentality. Back to the hobbits for him.