In 1994, Peter Jackson made a film called Heavenly Creatures. It was based on the true story of two teenage girls, and how they come to murder one girl's mother. It was really very good. The Lovely Bones is about a different sort of heavenly creature, this one a 14 year old girl who is savagely murdered and mutilated by her creepy neighbor. It's not really very good, and at times, it reminded me a little of another Jackson movie, also not really very good, called The Frighteners, about a psychic menaced by a ghostly serial killer. In between, Jackson made some little Lord of the Rings films -- you might have heard of them -- and an excellent King Kong remake, so I can honestly say that not so good films are not the norm for him.
Speaking of in between, that's where Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) dwells (lingers? hangs out? loiters?) following her murder. It's not exactly heaven, but a sort of groovy halfway house of the afterlife. It looks like the kind of place a 1970s teen girl might imagine heaven to be -- candy colored, with golden meadows and sandy beaches, and bubbles and butterflies. It also looks like the sort of place where Hello Kitty might live. Susie's murderer, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), continues to live across the street from her family. Her grieving parents (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz) cope in different ways. Her father becomes obsessed with finding her killer. Her mother withdraws. Her boozy grandmother (Susan Sarandon) takes up residence to provide some unneeded comic relief and care for Susie's sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) and little brother Buckley (Christian Thomas Ashdale).
Susie narrates The Lovely Bones, and watches her family, and her killer, from the afterlife, when she isn't traipsing among the flowers with her new dead friend Holly (Nikki SooHoo). In Susie's afterlife, metaphors happen. Gigantic ships in bottles crash on the shore of an afterlife beach, there are massive ice sculptures and trees made of birds, and sometimes, menacing things, like doors Susie doesn't care to open. Jackson and his special effects team have made the afterlife a visually arresting (if sometimes obvious and not terribly imaginative) place. It's trippy, colorful, scenic, and ever-changing, which may be what the afterlife is like, but I hope not. It's no way to rest in peace.
The trouble with The Lovely Bones, based on Alice Sebold's bestselling novel, is that it spends too much time in Susie's almost heaven, and too little among the living. Susie is obsessed with the people she's left behind -- including her dreamy almost-was boyfriend (Reece Ritchie), and her family. She's obsessed, too, with her killer, and spends some of her time trying to reach out to the living, to let them know that the killer is the creepy guy across the street. This involves some supernatural hocus pocus like making candles flicker and appearing in dreams. By spending so much time with Susie, The Lovely Bones has little left to spend with her family, whose various manifestations of mourning are attended to sporadically and with minimal feeling. The movie never really engages with these people, and does little more than gloss the surface of a grief that ought to be profound and bottomless. This makes Susie's death (which happens offscreen), and its aftershocks something the audience never has to (or never gets to) deal with.
The only really interesting character in the movie is Harvey, who is, needless to say, despicable, and a terrible, horrible man. He builds dollhouses -- perfect, miniature replicas of life that are, in his hands, grotesque. It's easy enough to hate him, and Tucci does a fine job of portraying his unsettling, seething wickedness. But as for the rest, their parts are underwritten and underdeveloped in the the screenplay by Jackson and his frequent cowriters Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh.
The Lovely Bones is a serial killer thriller, a revenge movie, a gumdrop fairy tale ghost story, a domestic melodrama, a teen romance. It's too many movies at once, and so, its attention divided, it is both too much and too little.