Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is a 14-year-old romantic and aspiring photographer with a loving family living in suburban Pennsylvania in 1973. Their idyllic life hits a tragic roadblock, however, when Susie disappears one evening. The police find her hat and a significant amount of blood in a makeshift underground room dug beneath a local cornfield, and the assumption is that Susie is dead.
We know this to be the truth, as we see Susie's spirit watching the events that transpire from the afterlife, an "in-between" area between Heaven and Earth. She's initially shocked to find herself there, but soon settles in with the help of a fellow young spirit named Holly (Nikki SooHoo). Taking Holly's lead, Susie crafts an afterlife to suit her likes: full of flowers, bright sunshine, frilly dresses, sugar, spice and everything nice.
But Susie's attention turns back to her family and their struggle to pick up the pieces in the years following her death. Neither of her parents can let go, her father (Mark Wahlberg) hounding police detective Fenerman (Michael Imperioli) with theories of who the killer is and her shell-shocked mother (Rachel Weisz) drifting away from the family altogether.
Some of her family members see (or at least "sense") Susie's spirit looking over them -- notably her father and younger siblings Buckley (Christian Thomas Ashdale) and Lindsey (Rose McIver), and she tries to lead them to clues to her killer's identity: reclusive neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci). Lindsey and her dad come to suspect him, but can they prove it before his hunger to kill rises again?
The End Result
Perhaps feeling the pressure to touch upon every plot point in the novel, the film rushes from one scene to another, rarely slowing down to allow the impact of the horrific events to settle in with either the audience or the characters themselves. Following Susie's death, we get only one brief, unmoving scene of her parents absorbing the ramifications of the crime before we jump to Susie frolicking in the afterlife and her father buckling down to search for the killer. Granted, you don't want the movie to devolve into a maudlin weep-fest, but the dramatic elements -- the meat of the book, from what I gather -- are reduced to nil in favor of the Hollywood staples of special effects (in the Heaven scenes) and murder mystery thrills (tracking down the culprit).
The negligible dramatic impact doesn't receive any boost from the casting of Mark Wahlberg, who's somehow fumbled his way into A-list roles. Between his perpetually dead eyes and furrowed brow, his lack of emotional range and a confused speech pattern that makes every sentence sound like a question, the former rapper's performance is a chore to endure, draining the impact from any scenes in which he appears. The usually reliable Rachel Weisz takes the brunt of Wahlberg's deadening effect, her attempts at angst seemingly exaggerated to overcompensate for her co-star's blandness. Even apart from her scenes with him, however, Weisz seems to be just going through the motions -- much like the film itself -- her performance vanishing into the same irrelevance to which her character is relegated.
On the bright side, there are some wonderful performances in The Lovely Bones, headed by Ronan herself, who displays both the wide-eyed, romantic innocence of an adolescent and the poise of a seasoned actress. Susan Sarandon's lighthearted turn as Susie's straight-talking grandmother, meanwhile, helps keep the Salmon family from becoming a dull, one-note clan we care little about. The standout cast member, though, is Tucci, who embodies the serial killing pedophile role a bit too genuinely for his own good. Mr. Harvey is actually the most interesting person in the film and the only one to almost escape the script's one-dimensional characterizations, but despite a few peeks into his home life, we never get a true sense of who he is and why he commits his crimes.
The story is, at its heart, a drama that deals with family dynamics, loss of innocence, grief, love and forgiveness, but that doesn't mean it can't work as the suspense thriller that Jackson tries to craft. He's indeed more adept at the thriller elements, lending a noir-ish feel to scenes of the brooding Mr. Harvey lurking in the shadows, coupled with an unnerving portrayal of the killer's matter-of-fact plotting of his sadistic crimes. Viewers do become invested in seeing the monster brought to justice -- more so than in seeing the family repair itself -- but as a thriller, The Lovely Bones still misses its mark for the same lack of emotion, shallow characterizations and sloppy storytelling that doom the dramatic moments.
We get the gist of how the characters are supposed to be interpreted -- the father is vindictive, the mother is detached, Susie is overly concerned with earthbound events -- but the script deals with them in such a perfunctory manner that we're left with only vague emotional cues. We hardly get to see the mother's issues dealing with death, and we don't get the sense that Susie is unrealistically obsessed with why she died or with getting the lives of her family getting back on track; she just wants to help them find the killer, which is what we want as well, don't we? The ambiguity of emotion is embodied in the excessive amount of pensive, knowing stares that are supposed to represent Susie's family being given some sort of otherworldly guidance but which ultimately feel like sloppy storytelling. (Granted, some issues might be inherent in the story.)