Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart crawl out of their Netflix envelope-insulated dens and find out during what sorts of movies Academy members are being held in underground cells. This week they get stuck in purgatory during Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones.
Happy New Year, Ben! I hope you enjoyed your holiday, but now it’s back to work. Unfortunately, that means watching Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, which is even worse than its trailer suggests. Please, Ben, let me use this space to pen an open letter to Hollywood.
Every movie based on a popular novel need not have its soundtrack saturated with voiceover. I know you guys (none of you are women, right?) think it’s a way to honor the audience-beloved source material, but it’s actually disrespectful to the words that once sat silently on the page. Because it shows that you have no concept of the differences between media—what works in print versus on a screen. In this case, Mr. Jackson: rather than honor the spirit of Alice Sebold’s novel by retaining chunks of its language, you have merely photocopied it, fashioning a blurry facsimile with the margins cut off.
But really, Ben, what else would you expect from a movie without the deep-down beauty its title suggests, but only a superficial attractiveness with a vacuous core? There’s a difficult story buried somewhere in this movie about freeing our souls from the psycho/material miseries that weigh them down, about finding numinous liberation in Letting Go. All that remains, though, are some bromides about the afterlife that are about as comforting as a pat on the shoulder from a stranger.
Obviously, Jackson was only drawn to this story because he wanted to fire up his computer programs and create “The In-Between,” that world between Heaven and Earth that its hero occupies. (For those of you at home: creepy Stanley Tucci murders his 15-year-old neighbor, Atonement’s Saoirse Ronan, who then observes her family members, from a What Dreams May Come limbo, as they fail to cope.) The movie is prettiest before Ronan dies, with its deep and rich colors, its sumptuous, creamy, 70s-stylized frames. But the Glorious CGI heavenscapes she inhabits through the rest of the film—which pale in comparison to the gorgeous real world wonders of the underappreciated The Fall—look as phony as old rear projection, at least on the small screen. (I watched a DVD screener—thanks, Paramount!) The crass surrealism, the facile dream logic: I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was just a multiplex imitation of the artsy, without a spark of originality or true wisdom. Drowned in instructive music—by Brian fuckng Eno!—and heavy-handed literary symbols, The Lovely Bones works its way through an endless stream of narrative, character and visual clichés. A warning to all Americans: if your neighbor has a mustache, don’t let him near your kids.
Happy 2010, Henry! It’s funny that you should compare The Lovely Bones’s surreal sub par-CGI purgatory to the various worlds traveled by Robin Williams in What Dreams May Come, because in addition to that afterlife film I was constantly reminded of the innumerable other ghost movies (several of them Oscar-anointed) from which Jackson seemed to be borrowing. Whether it was the old “oddball kid who can see dead people” a la The Sixth Sense and Beetlejuice—in this case Carolyn Dando as punk girl Ruth—or the inter-dimensional communication between loved ones as in Ghost and Waking the Dead, Jackson relied on some very familiar tricks, digitally amplified of course.
And, as you mention, it wasn’t enough that grotesque special effects made every emotional queue brain-numbingly evident, they all had to be articulated by characters—often but not exclusively by Suzie in voice-over. My favorite such moment came when I really hoped but secretly knew that the film couldn’t possibly already be ending at the two-hour mark, when all of George Harvey’s (Tucci) victims are freed from limbo. As they run across that digital cornfield towards the horizon (by the way, didn’t “the in-between” look like the Garden of Eden with its tempting Tree of Knowledge?) Suzie gasps, “It’s beautiful,” to which Holly Golightly (Nikki SooHoo) responds: “Of course it’s beautiful, it’s heaven.” No shit. I half expected her to say: “Of course it’s beautiful, it’s a Peter Jackson movie.” The Brian fucking Eno score also reached its most unbearable crescendo during this sequence, making it all the more unbearable.
Ghost stories aside, wasn’t Bones also a rather clunky pastiche of serial killer movie conventions? Most obviously Oscar favorites like David Fincher’s Zodiac (for 70s period porn and male leads who descend into obsession and madness) and Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs (for subterranean lairs and the female heroines who infiltrate them), but also Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam for its terrifying portrayal of homes, households and the monstrous families dwelling within.
Houses were an important symbol in this movie, right? I couldn’t tell because I kept getting distracted by the swooping shots into and through houses, the close-ups of George’s dollhouses, and the house-shaped pendant off Suzie bracelet that he dangled mere millimeters from the camera lens every 10 minutes to wake me from my CGI-induced stupor. Unlike the aforementioned serial killer movies, tension, fear and catharsis are seldom crafted by the very capable actors in Bones. Even easily stunt-doubled effects (like, say, falling into a ditch) have to be performed by lifeless computer-generated avatars. Turning the novel’s sparse in-between scenes into a magical wonderland is one thing, but when Jackson’s fondness for digital spectacle spills into the world of tangible sets, props and people the results are disastrous.
And what of those people? I thought Sarandon was quite terrific, partly because hers is the only character whose essential moral goodness or badness is ever uncertain in this movie of clearly-labeled heroes and villains—it’s Fellowship-versus-Sauron in suburban Pennsylvania. When she first shows up she seems likely to destroy the family with her deliciously disgusting behavior, but later on she keeps her cool while everyone else loses their shit. Suzie’s little sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) damn near steals the film with her late-game heroics, partly because Ronan is so completely uninteresting in the lead. Rachel Weisz and Mark Wahlberg, as the grieving parents, are appropriately sad-looking but not especially memorable.
The lone actor who might earn an Oscar nomination, as I see it, is Tucci as the mincing murderer, with all his method acting tics and telltale gait. His was the only major performance that seemed to be doing something more than ferrying us between CGI set pieces. In Sebold’s novel “the lovely bones” are the connections forged between characters in the aftermath of Suzie’s death, but in Jackson’s version they’re the characters themselves, hazily outlined accessories to help the art and special effects departments connect one hallucinogenic effects sequence to the next.
Categories Baited: Supporting Actor (Stanley Tucci), Art Direction (Jules Cook & Chris Shriver), Cinematography (Andrew Lesnie), Director (Peter Jackson), Original Score (Brian Eno), Visual Effects (too numerous), Adapted Screenplay (Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson).
(Photo Credit: Matt Mueller, Copyright © 2010 DW STUDIOS L.L.C. All Rights Reserved.)