MOVIE REVIEW- Unpleasant<i>: </i>Enchanting lead can't save <i>Lovely</i> <i>Bones</i>


Remember when Peter Jackson announced he was going to make "a little picture" after the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong and before tackling The Hobbit? Well, The Lovely Bones seems to have "growed like Topsy" into an overinflated, unpleasant mess.

First of all, this story of the murder of a 14-year-old girl and its aftermath should not be seen by 14-year-old girls. It may hammer home the lesson that they shouldn't talk to strangers, but it's also likely to make them paranoid, if not leave them traumatized for life.

The murder isn't actually shown, but the oblique hints of what happened are even more terrifying, and a violent scene late in the film is totally gratuitous. Jackson obviously had some nastiness to get out of his system.

Susie Salmon (Atonement's Saoirse Ronan, again enchanting) narrates from the afterlife, where she's temporarily lodged in "the blue horizon between heaven and earth"; but we learn at the end that the unfinished business keeping her there isn't what you think.

She introduces us to life in her Pennsylvania community before she died, and to her family. Jack (Mark Wahlberg) and Abigail (Rachel Weisz) also have two younger children, Lindsey (Rose McIver) and Buckley (Christian Ashdale). Hard-drinking, chain-smoking Grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon) drops by occasionally to be a bad influence. "Just have fun, kid," she advises Susie.

Susie is about to have fun when her crush, Ray Singh (Reece Ritchie, tailor-made Tiger Beat cover material) suddenly pays attention to her. But someone else has been paying attention too: a quiet neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci, unrecognizable in a dirty blond wig and mustache).

It's not immediately apparent, half an hour into the movie, that Susie's been murdered– even though she told us to expect it on December 6, 1973– because her spirit is still active on earth. From then on, she moves easily and inconsistently between earth and a place that often resembles Jackson's native New Zealand, but we're told is not of this earth. Sometimes, people are aware of her on some level, even think they see her, but mostly Susie just observes.

She sees Jack, who had an obsessive personality to begin with, become obsessed with finding her killer. He's constantly bothering local police detective Len Fenerman (Michael Imperioli) with useless information and suggestions.

Susie also sees her siblings grow up and is moved by watching Lindsey's first kiss, an experience she was robbed of. Lindsey inherits their father's obsessiveness, leading to a suspenseful girl-in-jeopardy moment that should be the film's climax; but as Lord of the Rings fans know, Jackson can't let a movie end when it should.

Susie and her family, especially Jack, can't let each other go, even though he needs to get on with life, and she needs to get on with death. This is obvious for at least an hour before anyone does anything about it.

Except for Ronan and Tucci, the cast isn't given the opportunity to do anything significant. Most of them disappear for too long at a time. Sarandon might easily have run away with the picture but reins herself in, knowing she could throw the mood out of whack if she overplayed her role as it seems to have been intended for her to do.

I'm not saying The Lovely Bones doesn't have wonderful moments, but they're almost like needles in a haystack. Talking about hunting from a duck blind, George tells Jack, "It takes a lot of patience."

So does The Lovely Bones. The bones may be lovely, but there's too much meat on them, and too little of it is choice.