January 14, 2010

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The Lovely Bones (PG-13)
Peter Jackson gives us murder, grief and psychedelic visuals in the tedious and flaky The Lovely Bones, an adaptation of the popular Alice Sebold novel.

Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is your average young-teen girl growing up in mid-1970s suburbia. She has a crush on a handsome senior (Reece Ritchie) and she has a worldly grandma (Susan Sarandon). She has loving parents — mom Abigail (Rachel Weisz) and dad Jack (Mark Wahlberg), a warmly aggravating younger sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) and a completely superfluous little brother Buckley (Christian Thomas Ashdale). And she has an exceptionally creepy neighbor (Stanley Tucci) whose name might as well be Strange R. Danger but is actually George Harvey. She doesn’t completely realize just how creepy he is until one very creepy night in the cornfield he lures her into a hole in the ground and kills her.

(Possibly the only enjoyable thing about watching this movie was the reactions of a group of girls sitting behind me, including to Susie’s bumbling “OK” when George tells her he wants to show her something cool out there in the dark cornfield. “What the hell is the matter with you” seemed to be their consensus as she climbs down a ladder. Later, when Susie, in “heaven,” first meets another girl, she nervously says “I don’t know you; I’m not going to go anywhere with you.” Now you’re concerned with that, the girls behind me exclaimed.)

Susie is shocked and scared and angered by her death. Whatever it is she should be doing or feeling to get to the blissful afterlife, she can’t and so she’s stuck “in the in between” as her little brother explains to her grandmother after having seen her in a dream. She is able to frolic and delight in supernatural landscapes but she also watches as her parents crumble apart over her death and as her killer relives her murder and even considers another one, eyeing as a possible target her sister, who grows skeptical and strong as she ages. The movie consists of a lot of shots of people looking: George looking at the trinket he’s saved from Susie’s death, Susie looking at the people she left behind, her father looking into windows and seeing (or thinking he sees) her image. He looks, she looks, they look and we, for two and a half-ish hours, watch uncomfortably.

Because, when it isn’t creeping you out with all the disturbing child predator stuff (Tucci’s performance isn’t subtle but it is completely icky), The Lovely Bones is boring the fizz right out of your soda with its flitty scenes of Susie will-o’-the-wisp-ing it through CGI deserts and meadows and what have you. I got the sense that all this thinking and looking might have some emotional heft in written form but on the screen everything just drags. Even when the movie is creepy or unbearably sad, it’s still boring, still flashy CGI with very little behind it that gives those effects the oomph I suspect they were meant to have.

And I suppose even still the performances could have saved the movie (though at two-plus hours…) but here everybody felt off. Tucci is disturbing, yes, but he’s cartoonishly ridiculously disturbing — so much so that it hurts the creditability of all the many characters who don’t seem to catch on. Ronan, that strange little girl from Atonement (another ponderous mess), is probably a decent young actress, but she don’t have much to do here except furrow her brows and recite lines that start to feel extremely repetitive. Weiscz’s character moans that she can’t get over Susie’s death and then essentially disappears from the movie. Sarandon is a boozy, all-knowing steel pillar who seems to be playing a part in a completely different movie. And Wahlberg — well, something strange has happened to Wahlberg lately. He says his lines with this kind of odd rhythm that makes you feel like maybe everything he’s saying is filled with dramatic irony. Like he’s in a skit about a serious movie and while he’s playing it straight we’re supposed to laugh. It’s the same tone he used in that scene where he talks to the plastic plant in The Happening and he seems to be, like, stuck there. It’s a weird and distracting part of his performance and I think at a couple of moments the crowd behind me did actually laugh at the serious — maybe? — things he said.

Sadly, not everybody is going to get the same hecklers in their theater so even the minor entertainment I got from the movie isn’t likely to be repeated. C-

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving disturbing violent content and images and some language. Directed by Peter Jackson and written by Jackson, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh (from the novel by Alice Sebold), The Lovely Bones is two hours and 19 minutes long and will open in wide release on Friday, Jan. 15. It is distributed by Paramount Pictures.