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01/15/2010

Heaven can wait

All dogs go to heaven, according to animated movie lore, circa 1989.

In Peter Jackson's live-action stunner "The Lovely Bones," however, a bewildered 14-year-old girl wakes up in the "in-between" after being raped and brutally murdered by a sinister neighbor.

Jackson, the Oscar-winning New Zealander of "Lord of the Rings" franchise fame, takes what amounts to a little film and fluffs it up into something mystical and magical.

In fact, "The Lovely Bones" is mired in somewhat of an "in-between" itself.  "Lord of the Rings" devotees may want more forays into special effects, while fans of Alice Sebold's 2002 best seller could feel that Jackson gets more than a little carried away with computer-generated flights of fantasy and near-heavenly images.

The good news is that extremely fine acting in two of the key roles keeps this horrific story grounded enough to chill us audience members right down to our own bones (lovely or not).

Very capable young actress Saoirse Ronan was 13-playing-14 when this film went into production in New Zealand and Pennsylvania in the fall of 2007.  Ronan, nominated for a supporting actress Academy Award as the young accuser in "Atonement" that same year, fills her character Susie with love-of-life curiosity while she's alive, then effective sadness after a fatal lapse in judgment.

Susie's on her way home from school after staying for a film club meeting when lecherous neighbor Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci) lures her into an underground den in a cornfield.  He calls it a "clubhouse for the neighborhood kids."

The script by director Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens spares the audience some of the grisly details.  There's no doubt that a young girl thinking about her future as a photographer and a first kiss with a boy in her class has passed on and landed not in heaven, exactly, but in Jackson's colorful, ever-changing landscape that turns out to be the filmmaker's version of purgatory.

As the family grieves down below, Susie is torn between moving on to what appears to be heaven with other murdered children or watching her family from above.  Suzie also keeps an eye on her killer, even as he gets off scott-free and begins to set his sleazy sights on Susie's younger  sister Lindsay (Rose McIver).

The finest performance comes from Tucci as George Harvey, a loner who crafts doll houses by day and feeds his occasional feverish need to destroy the lives of children when no one's looking.  I've enjoyed Tucci's acting for a couple of decades.  And although he's magnificent opposite Meryl Streep as Julia Child's husband Paul in "Julie & Julia," I've never seen the Golden Globe nominee (for this performance) squeeze so much dramatic juice from a character.

"The Lovely Bones," while punctuated with visionary special effects (giant ships-in-bottles crashing into a purgatory reef is nothing short of visually incredible), has its shortcomings as well.  Mark Wahlberg, who stepped in at the last minute for Ryan Gosling, doesn't quite have the acting chops to constantly convince as a frustrated, devastated dad who lost his little girl.

Rachel Weisz fares better as his wife Abigail, a mother so emotionally distraught that she abandons her family when she can't stand it anymore.  This is certainly Jackson's film to conceive and bring to the screen.  I can't help thinking, however, that Susan Sarandon's Grandma Lynn is way over the top.  Does Jackson really need blatant comic relief in a tale so glum and moody?

Jackson and his collaborators deviate a bit from the book.  They cut back on the sexual nature of a key scene near the end, making "The Lovely Bones" more romantic.

It may be a little film played out on a grandiose palette, but the visually rich "Lovely Bones" kept me fascinated throughout its extended running time of almost two and a half hours. 

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