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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Mutual of Omaha's Wild Afterlife
by John P. McCarthy

Far from the shudder-and-cry experience of reading Alice Sebold's 2002 novel The Lovely Bones, watching Peter Jackson's adaptation has too much in common with staring at a lava lamp for a couple of hours. More precisely, his vision of the afterlife 14-year-old narrator Susie Salmon enters following her rape, murder and dismemberment by a neighbor resembles cheesy, psychedelic goo. To invoke another period metaphor, the heaven Jackson posits is like a garish shag carpet from 1973, the year in which the story takes place.

It's no wonder the director of the remarkable Lord of the Rings trilogy or Heavenly Creatures would relish the opportunity to create an alternate reality to the burgeoning suburban community of Norristown, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, the parts of the movie in which Susie is in limbo, what Sebold calls the "In-between" yet describes as part of heaven, are the weakest sequences in the film.

Without completely undermining the emotional impact of the story, they detract from what makes the book so powerful: earthbound melodrama concerning Susie's grieving parents (Rachel Weisz and Mark Wahlberg), family members and peers, plus the tender insights Sebold offers into the arrested blossoming of a teenaged girl. Jackson is more concerned with modeling a ghost story in which Susie -- played by Saoirse Ronan, the Irish actress nominated for an Oscar for Atonement, -- navigates her way through a surreal locale where fantasy and human yearning meld.

Although The Lovely Bones is still about loss, Jackson has chosen to emphasize its effect on Susie's post-mortem state. This requires significant additions to Sebold's enticingly vague, supernatural scaffold. And what Jackson and his screenwriting partners, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, devise has a chintzy feel evocative of a late Age of Aquarius teen sensibility, but conventionally schlocky in a way that seems more expressive of Jackson's creative inclinations than Susie's particular outlook or experience.

After her demise in a cornfield on the way home from school, Susie lingers in her purgatory, still fixated on her earthly imprint. From this vantage point, she watches people on earth, including her killer Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci), her two younger siblings and dipsomaniac grandmother (Susan Sarandon), along with the boy she had a crush on and a schoolmate eerily attuned to female apparitions.

It's not all backward-looking gloom in this anteroom. Some of her trivial wishes are fulfilled, but her emotional turmoil and unsettled condition are reflected in her celestial environment. Susie dreamt of becoming a wildlife photographer and, while animals are scarce, her dramatically lit surroundings boast a tree of life, sunsets and sunrises, Alpine meadows, seascapes featuring the ships-in-the-bottles she helped her father make, as well as lots of running in slow motion and drowning in murky bodies of water. A lighthouse figures prominently. You half expect to spy a unicorn, or a hobbit.

In order for Susie's journey to continue, she must overcome her hatred for Harvey (which, by the way, doesn't preclude supernatural justice via an icicle) and be convinced she'll be remembered by loved ones. This process takes around a dozen years in the book, whereas it's radically compressed on screen. With two exceptions -- Stanley Tucci's mannered performance, which turns Harvey into an obvious villain, sporting a dental prosthetic and Mr. Rogers cardigan, rather than a chillingly mundane monster next door; and, second, Brian Eno's tinny music -- the balance of the production is quite good. Most everything set on earth is handled tastefully and movingly, and there's ample suspense. 

Creating miniature, self-contained worlds is a major theme in The Lovely Bones and, gifted celluloid architect though he may be, one suspects Jackson got carried away and let his god complex run amok. The only solace or satisfaction he offers is secular humanism garnished with technically sophisticated but artistically stagnant special effects.

Jackson is on record discussing the influences that The Partridge Family had on this film. Beyond the sitcom playing in the background during one scene, they are quite recognizable in both the home décor and the design of Susie's afterlife. Yet The Lovely Bones also brings to mind another popular show from that era, Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom in which host Marlin Perkins spanned the globe to tangle with ferocious animals.

In my house growing up, we got a kick out the fact the frail-looking Perkins would always ask his strapping younger colleague Jim Fowler to step in when things got too hairy. Apparently, the intrepid auteur Peter Jackson had no equivalent back-up when it came to depicting the hereafter. 

(Released by DreamWorks and rated "PG-13" for mature thematic material involving disturbing violent content and images and some language.)

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