Watching The Lovely Bones, you wonder if Peter Jackson thought he was still remaking King Kong. Alice Sebold's beloved 2002 novel, about a 14-year-old girl who looks down from heaven as her family struggles with the aftermath of her murder, is the sort of delicate story that requires a light directorial touch and a careful balancing of emotional tones. But Jackson bears down on the material with every special effect and camera trick in his arsenal. The result is almost suffocating: a movie that has been tinkered and fussed with until there is no spontaneity left -- no warmth or life or messiness.
The Lovely Bones offers only directorial bombast and grandeur. I don't mean to sound flippant, but Jackson was a better director when he was shaggy, overweight and unknown. Now that he's a svelte, well-groomed Oscar winner, he's become vain and self-important. At one point, he gives himself a cameo (he's a customer in a photo shop peering through a video camera), the way Hitchcock famously did, except Jackson's cameo goes on and on to the point of distraction, as if to make sure no one misses it.
Jackson's presence permeates The Lovely Bones to a fault: When two kids stand in a school hallway talking about Othello, you don't hear a word they're saying, because all you can notice is the show-off camera moves and edits. Style doesn't serve the story in The Lovely Bones: Style becomes the story, and it's boring.
Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) is well cast as the doomed Susie Salmon, a lovestruck teen destined to be raped and murdered by the serial killer (a creepy Stanley Tucci) lurking in her neighborhood. Living in 1973 Pennsylvania with her parents (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz) and two siblings, Susie is spirited and funny and likable, and Ronan's performance draws you into the early portions of the film. You also feel her terror when she is trapped beneath the ground in a room with the pervert who will take her life -- the first instance when The Lovely Bones takes leave of its naturalistic style and becomes an overwrought, if effective, horror film.
Based on a screenplay Jackson crafted with his usual writing partners, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, The Lovely Bones emphasizes the thriller aspects of Sebold's story above all else. The movie showcases Tucci's generic but unnerving killer and wrings the last bit of suspense inherent in the scenario of a madman living unnoticed in suburbia (there's a long, effective sequence in which a close-up of hands turning the pages of a book sets you squirming). But Jackson errs badly in his decision to render heaven as a surreal landscape of giant beach balls, bottled ships crashing on rocks and DayGlo colors. Who knew heaven looked like the cover of a Yes album?
What's worse, Ronan's heavenly encounters with her killer's other victims come off like Girl Scout singalongs, and the constant cutting away from the real world to Jackson's CGI paradise critically undercuts the performances of Wahlberg and Weisz as the grieving parents. When Weisz, unable to cope with her daughter's absence, suddenly abandons the family and runs away to become a grape picker in California, her decision feels inexplicable and profoundly selfish. You can't understand why the woman would do such a thing, because the film never lets you inside her head.
Susan Sarandon gets a big, comical entrance as the alcoholic grandma who swoops in to help keep the family together. But after her elaborate introduction, she, too, fades into the background. Jackson, who started out making fiendishly dark horror pictures, shows little interest in the lives of ordinary people in The Lovely Bones. His imagination is much more seized by the demented psycho and by the Disneyesque visions of the afterlife his computer-effects team have dreamed up. The Lovely Bones dazzles the eye but leaves the heart untouched. It's a hollow tragedy.