So much work for so simple a reward.

Hey, look, it’s 2011.

Looking around the apartment, it’s been clear for some time that I’ve got a tremendous backlog of stuff that I’ve been wanting to watch and read and process and consider. The past few weeks I’ve been trying to do just that; as I remarked on Twitter at the time, I watched THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS, Terry Gilliam’s latest, a week or two or three back, and the next night I finally watched SCOTT PILGRIM VERSUS THE WORLD, Edgar Wright’s adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s recently completed series of graphic novels. (Long story short, I found PARNASSUS enchanting and intriguing, but flawed, and it left me more curious how it would have wrapped had Heath Ledger not died in mid-production; whereas SCOTT PILGRIM was a nifty romp and a fantastic adaptation of the material except where it wasn’t, which is where it kinda sorta fell apart. The books are better, but the movie’s not bad. Both worthy efforts.) This morning I took in something I’d been sitting on a while longer, Peter Jackson’s THE LOVELY BONES, the thing he did before throwing up his arms and going back into the world of Middle-Earth.

The Lovely Bones

It's a well-composited image, but lately I've really been wishing they'd have artists painting -- even digitally -- movie posters again. Wouldn't that be nice?

It’s a fairly simple story; it’s 1973, and a teenage girl, Suzie (Saoirse Ronan), on her way home from the mall, is lured to her death at the hands of a creepy neighbor (a nervy, badly coiffed Stanley Tucci), who turns out to be a serial killer. The killer covers his tracks well, and the tale is more about the grieving by her parents (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz) and friends than an investigation. Jackson, however, tells the story all out of order, in a way that I thankfully found more intriguing than frustrating — more “tell me more” than “okay, get on with it.” There’s a touch of the supernatural to the story; for about the first half of the movie, it’s narrated by Suzie, and there are long stretches where we’re following her through not-quite-heaven, though it also doesn’t strike me as purgatory or limbo either. It’s more like it’s simply heaven’s waiting room. Still very pretty, though. Lots of CG effects and brilliant colors.

I wouldn’t call the movie sad, but neither would I call it particularly uplifting. There are actually stretches where I would have used that word, but because of the way the movie is assembled, it winds up tonally muddled. The journey seems to be about moving on — dealing with that loss and finding one’s way past it. And yet the film’s climax will surely reopen all the wounds, start the process over again, bring everyone back to rock bottom again. I do love some ambiguity; I do enjoy wondering what might happen next, mapping out the possibilities in my head, but after Jackson spends the entire running time of the film filling in the blanks and making metaphors literal thanks to CGI wizardry — and beautifully so, though in retrospect it clashes with the stark realism of the bulk of the film’s second half — closing the story where he does seems an odd choice except maybe to keep the film under two and a half hours. Or perhaps that’s where the book ends.

Like the other films I mentioned I watched recently, it’s a well-made film. It’s quite lovely to look at, with a well-realized sense of the period and some gobsmacking representations of the afterlife and Suzie’s journey from here to there that reminded me of the more lavish (and more overtly sentimental) WHAT DREAMS MAY COME. There’s a sequence right after the murder, where Suzie discovers what’s happened to her, that’s very strikingly put together, cleverly executed, but due to the way the film is assembled it’s memorable without having much impact. The performances are all solid, with Ronan and Wahlberg being real standouts. Tucci’s quite good as well, breathing some real life into a character who seems sketched from well-worn cliches.

Therein lies the real problem with the movie; it feels like Jackson’s trying to be very clever and ambitious with material that is, on its face, obvious, simple, and straightforward. On top of that, short of following Suzie around and hitting a few interesting beats here and there, the supernatural element of the film feels tacked on and never really reaches any payoff. What was the point of it, aside from establishing Suzie’s perspective as the narrator of the first hour or so of the movie?

Don’t get me wrong, I did like a lot of it, and I think I’d like to give it another look to see if it hangs together better on a second viewing, but all in all I’d call it the least of the interesting but flawed films I’ve watched recently, or at least the most inherently flawed of the lot.

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