Four years ago I would have said that Peter Jackson was the next Steven Spielberg. (Okay, I did say that, loudly and often.) Hot off of the unqualified success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and his flawed but winning remake of King Kong, Jackson had just spent the better part of a decade doing much more than just pretending to Hollywood’s greatest throne, stacking epic on top of ground-breaking epic without sacrificing the showman’s touch that convinced eager millions to sit through nine-plus hours of halfling shenanigans. (Up that to 11 and a half for the LOTR extended cuts, each further testament to Jackson’s taste as a storyteller.) Even better, he managed to fill his crowd-pleasers with an unforced edginess, the sort of quality that Spielberg spent the same period trying self-consciously to re-establish in his own work.
So when Jackson snatched up the rights to Alice Sebold’s 2002 pop-lit smash The Lovely Bones and announced it as his follow-up to Kong, the turn towards the mildly challenging and sentimental seemed, for better or worse, a perfectly Spielbergian thing to do. The novel, set in the early 1970s, concerns 14-year-old Susie Salmon, who is murdered by neighbor and serial predator George Harvey in the first chapter and then observes the future of her family, her community, and her killer from a dreamy perch in the afterlife. One part ’70s period piece, one part imaginative visuals, two parts heavy drama, three parts best-seller, and just a dash of ugliness—it’s like a recipe ripped from Spielberg’s own cookbook.
Somewhere along the line, though, something went terribly wrong. Jackson’s adaptation is a noisy mess wrapped in quiet failure, the sort of misfire that might set his career back were it not also so instantly forgettable. (Unenthusiastic reviews upon the film’s limited early-December release earned its national rollout a spot in the post-holiday cooling period, which is probably best for everyone involved.) The worst part of it? It’s pretty much all his own fault.
The Lovely Bones charms in its early moments. Jackson finds an unexpectedly light, kinetic mood in introducing the Salmon clan—most notably the shy Susie (Saoirse Ronan) and her parents (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz)—and glides into seriousness as Harvey (a mustachioed Stanley Tucci) intercepts Susie on her walk home from school. He tempts her with an advance look at a supposed play-cave he’s built beneath a dead field near her school. Susie follows him down in spite of herself, and realizes her mistake almost immediately. The event itself is danced around smartly, cross-cutting to a Salmon family dinner; in this and most other scenes with the superb (if overdirected) Tucci—most of them necessarily tense—Jackson hones in on an affecting tension.
The rest of the film is confused as to its usefulness. Susie’s personal heaven (it’s easiest to call it that, though the film lacks spiritual overtones) has been said to recall 1998’s schlocky What Dreams May Come; the comparison is both obvious and fair. But while Jackson’s vision is marginally less corny, it’s also far less successful on its own lofty terms, mostly because Susie doesn’t have much of anything to do there besides thanklessly narrate the rest of the story.
Still, this Great Intermittent FX Demo in the Sky is for the most part preferable to what’s going on back on Earth. Wahlberg brings his usual agitated man-child intensity to the role of the grief-stricken Jack Salmon, whose obsession over his loss comes to obscure The Lovely Bones’ more delicate threads. (He is only better than the wretched Susan Sarandon, as Susie’s grandmother, in that his character actually has a reason to be in the film.) By the one-hour mark the film still hasn’t found a tone, and Jackson seems to give up, letting his emotional beats and climax fall flat, just powering through to get it all over with.
That’s the confounding thing: Despite having one of the great feats of adaptation under his belt with Lord of the Rings, Jackson (with co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens) ends up putting this 300-page melodrama across as unadaptable. Despite having Heavenly Creatures on his resume, the truth may be that he is simply unsuited to quieter material. Perhaps his collaboration with Spielberg himself on an ambitious series of Tintin films will see some wisdom imparted, but for now us Jackson fans will just try to move past this—and thankfully The Lucky Bones is the sort of film you’ll easily forget.