Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Lovely Bones

If nothing else, Peter Jackson’s absurdly overwrought The Lovely Bones makes fellow award-season hopeful A Single Man look restrained by comparison. No mean feat, since Tom Ford’s film wraps its narrative of the last day in the life of a gay professor living in early ‘60s Los Angeles in so much aesthetic puffery that its characters are nearly swallowed whole. But after the first half-hour or so, Ford eases up just enough on the symbolic imagery and impressionistic montages to allow a finely etched story to emerge. First time director Ford seems determined to prove he’s an artist. The irony is that he is, but only when he doesn’t feel the need to insist on it.

The same can’t be said about Peter Jackson, or at least the Peter Jackson of 2009. As if unable to scale down from the epic heights of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong, Jackson’s approach to the human elements that his adaptation of Alice Sebold’s novel demands is to bathe them in so much horseshit sentiment and dubiously manipulative montage that the inattentive viewer may just miss the gaps in the story and the hollowness of the project. Certainly the audience at the New York premiere – who rated an in-house Jackson a thunderous round of applause – seemed taken in, but then I guess it’s hard to resist endless beatific close-ups of 15-year old Saorise Ronan’s face, especially when they serve (vulgarly, pulingly) to emphasize the tragedy of her character’s untimely murder.

Yes, for those who don’t know the story, high school freshmen Susie Salmon (Ronan) is slain in her Philadelphia suburb by an underimagined generic creep of a neighbor, then spends the rest of the film in a CGI-purgatory where she has some vague communication with the living and tries to set things right, first through a thirst for vengeance and then by an acceptance of circumstance. Much of the film’s problems stem from the difficulty of crafting a narrative that simultaneously takes place on two planes of existence. Even as most of the action unfolds in the world of the living, Jackson needs to keep cutting back to the afterlife since that’s where his main character resides. Unfortunately, he does a poor job of defining Susie’s relationship to her former world. She’s able to appear to relatives and influence them to some degree, but after filling her father with an initial desire for vengeance and then providing him with a change of heart, she seems to have little active effect on the living, so the filmmakers just leave her in her purgatory, marking time until events resolve themselves.

The constant shifting between two worlds means that Jackson has to rely heavily on parallel editing –and The Lovely Bones has more cross-cutting than a D.W. Griffith festival – but in two sequences he uses the technique to particularly dubious effect. During the murder sequence, as Susie’s killer lures her to his underground lair, Jackson cuts back to the girl’s family sitting nervously down to the dinner table waiting for her to return, the filmmaker milking every ounce of sentiment and wait-for-it horror from his lurid set-up. Then, in a later sequence, he cuts between Susie watching from her perch in the afterlife and the murderer pushing a safe with her remains to a dump site. Relying heavily on slow-motion shots, Jackson elongates time, turning the dumping into an epic ordeal which, coupled with the slather of strings on the soundtrack, serves to signify rather than illustrate the high drama supposedly being enacted.

But even as these two moments are clearly singled out for their central importance, the whole film is basically pitched at the same level of dramatic intensity. Every scene is marked by a swirl of strings, slo-mo camerawork or at the very least, pointlessly dizzyingly cutting. In fact, following the picture’s one misguided bit of comic relief – an out-of-nowhere sequence in which poor Susan Sarandon is forced to play the sassy, boozy older woman – roughly half-way through, there really are no lulls in the film, the whole thing achieving a uniform level of aesthetic oversaturation that continually converts the narrative’s excessive morbidity into easy sentiment. Jackson seems at home only when crafting his, admittedly impressive, CGI-afterworld and when staging one late suspense sequence in which Susie’s sister moronically enters the killer’s house to poke around only for the killer to return midway through. But when it comes to handling the more conventional aspects of his soapy narrative, such as dealing with his characters, he seems either uninterested in or unequal to the task, falling back on both his technical expertise and a tendency to shoot for the audience’s basest emotions through his unabashed taste for mush. You would think any viewer so disrespected by a director would be ready to wring his neck should he dare, as Jackson did at the premiere, to parade himself in front of the audience. But instead they toasted him as the Hollywood royalty he is and went on with their evening, another bit of disposable entertainment safely consumed.

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