After helming The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson will forever be associated with Middle-earth. The filmmaker has moved on but, apparently, not so his interest in fantasy worlds. There are no elves or wizards or hobbits in The Lovely Bones. The alternate world in this film, which is based on the bestseller by Alice Sebold, is the netherworld - the place between life and death, Earth and heaven, the place where souls linger when they are not yet ready to part from life.
The storyline is disturbing and should be a heart-tugger. In 1973, a 14-year-old girl is murdered by a serial killer, and her corporeal presence lingers in the in-between world, observing her family. But a story about the unbreakable bonds between parents and children, a story about thwarted justice and monstrous revelations, is diverted by Jackson into a story about the CGI wow factor of his netherworld. Colors are drenched and cornfields undulate provocatively. Tree leaves fall away only to take flight as birds. The landscape can be stark and foreboding or candy-colored.
Jackson appears to have devoted all his energies to creating these alterna-world images, but when you get right down to it, they're fairly prosaic and commonplace. His attention to the postmortem wanderings of Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) caused Jackson to short-shrift his surviving characters, which is a shame. The performances are all very good yet fail to connect emotionally with the audience.
Mark Wahlberg delivers some of his best work as Susie's ever-faithful dad, and mom Rachel Weisz is at her most compliant. Ronan, as she demonstrated in Atonement, is one of today's most accomplished young actors. Stanley Tucci, who never fails to impress, shows his range this year by playing both The Lovely Bones' nebbishy murderer and Julia Child's besotted husband in Julie & Julia. Michael Imperioli grows out his sideburns to play the supportive detective on the case.
As the hip, boozing grandma, Susan Sarandon gets the short end of the stick by having her performance, though delightful in itself, serve as the film's comic relief. It grates all the more because, in the absence of the deep emotions and tensions one might expect from this story, there is no need for comic relief. Why Susie would want to stick around with these deadbeats is the movie's only real mystery. Jackson needs to rediscover the human element of film.