A tale overpowered by technology

Back before he went all Hobbity on us, New Zealand director Peter Jackson released Heavenly Creatures, a startling true-life tale of two schoolgirls diving headlong into an obsessive fantasy world, and conspiring to kill one girl's mother in the process.

What makes the 1994 film so powerful - in addition to a breakout performance from a young Kate Winslet - are Jackson's hallucinatory fantasy sequences, mixing vivid visual effects and animation to take the viewer inside the teen duo's imaginary realm.

In The Lovely Bones, Jackson's woefully misguided adaptation of Alice Sebold's best-selling novel, the filmmaker - who has since been responsible for a rather significant Middle Earth trilogy - takes a similar approach, but does it with so many bells, whistles, and digital dreamscapes that he loses control of this tricky tale. And it is tricky, with its tone of grief and loss, but also hope and humor.

Susie Salmon (Atonement's troublemaker, Saoirse Ronan), a 14-year-old who lives with her family in Norristown, Pa., is murdered by a neighbor. It's December 1973, and the Salmons - Mark Wahlberg's Jack and Rachel Weisz's Abigail - are understandably devastated.

The conceit of Sebold's novel, and of Jackson's loopy interpretation, is that Susie now looks down on her bereaved parents and her younger sister (Rose McIver), watching from the afterlife as they grapple with the tragedy. And she watches as Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci), her killer, goes nervously about his business, tending to his dollhouse and trying to cover his tracks - and conceal his journals about the young girls he has raped and put to death. (Tucci's performance is twitchy and icky. His awards-season kudos are, I think, more a recognition of his gumption for taking on such an unpleasant role than for anything he does with it.)

And so, Jackson has fashioned two worlds: a drab '70s suburbia, with cul-de-sacs and malls populated by folks in Partridge Family-style getups, the cars and the music meticulously accurate. (Jackson and company shot the film in Sebold's original setting, suburban Philadelphia.)

And then there is this not-yet-heaven place, where Susie is joined by a gaggle of bubbly young girls who, like her, were victims of rape and murder. (Jackson doesn't show Susie's rape in any explicit manner - it's only suggested at, when Mr. Harvey takes her to his subterranean lair.) It's in Jackson's CGI-crazy rendering of this "in between" reality that The Lovely Bones goes terribly awry: he creates a universe of shooting stars, of glowing orbs rolling across fjords and mountains, with smiling Susie gamboling over sun-dappled fields (Jackson borrows from Andrew Wyeth, echoing the painter's famous Christina's World, but turning the image acid-trip intense). Sometimes these scenes suggest ads for antidepressant medication, or feminine hygiene products, but mostly they serve as jarring reminders of whose handiwork the movie is: a guy running haywire through his own elaborate CGI toy shop, Jackson's Weta Digital.

It doesn't help any that Wahlberg, looking perpetually dumbstruck, is among the clunkiest line-readers working in movies today. Or that Susan Sarandon shows up as Susie's boozy grandma, acting as though she's in another film - a noisy family comedy, say, not a soul-crusher about a family torn to pieces.

Tonally, visually, conceptually, The Lovely Bones is all wrong. There is only one sustained section, when Susie's sister, Lindsey, suspicious of the creepy neighbor played by Tucci, breaks into his house and goes digging for clues - and he returns from an errand to find her there - that seems to work as intended. It is chilling and suspenseful, with another girl's life placed in jeopardy.

And if Lindsey is caught and killed, who knows? Jackson would probably have her go skipping merrily down the psychedelic hills and dales of limbo land, holding hands with her sibling as a celestial chorus sings selections from the songbook of Hair.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies.

The Lovely Bones

Directed by Peter Jackson. With Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rose McIver, Nikki SooHoo, Michael Imperioli, Amanda Michalka, Carolyn Dando, Susan Sarandon, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for mature thematic material involving disturbing violent content and images, and some language).