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The Lovely Bones

To those only vaguely familiar with The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold's bestselling novel about a murdered teen who observes her family — and tracks her killer — from beyond, Peter Jackson might seem like an odd choice to direct the film adaptation. Why would the visual effects maestro who orchestrated such grand spectacle in films like King Kong and the Lord of the Rings trilogy be attracted to Bones' somber, reflective subject matter, wherein nary an orc or a goblin can be found?

Shortly after the film's opening moments, Jackson's definitive answer arrives in the form of the "in-between place," a breathtaking limbo where our wide-eyed heroine, 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), arrives after her life is cruelly cut short by a next-door neighbor and closet predator named, ominously enough, Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci). Suzie's experience of the afterlife, as a sort of spiritual way-station featuring elements of both heaven and hell (but mostly heaven), is a veritable CGI playground for Jackson, one in which he can employ all of the digital tools in his vast arsenal in the service of a powerful, affecting story.

And what a gorgeous playground it is. As Susie journeys through her wondrous netherworld — sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied by a perky young spirit guide named Holly (Nikki SooHoo) — Jackson serves up a succession of exquisitely rendered landscapes for her to explore, from placid spring meadows to boundless Alpine slopes to lush green forests. Jackson knows all too well that the issue of life after death, especially when considered in regards to those who left us too soon, is fertile emotional ground. With the help of an irresistably expressive Ronan, he mines it schrewdly.

Back on Earth, unfortunately, The Lovely Bones takes the form of an poorly-constructed, deeply unsatisfying police procedural. Frustrated by the authorities' inability to find the killer, Susie's anguished father (Mark Wahlberg) mounts an investigation of his own, aided occasionally, in Ghost-like fashion, by his daughter's unseen hand. Tension rises as the mystery unravels — Jackson, having drawn us in with his shamelessly manipulative handiwork, has us by the emotional short-hairs, so much so that we're willing to overlook the film's gap-laden storyline, reduntant narration, underdeveloped supporting characters and a generally underwhelming Wahlberg. We just want payback, damnit.

But when The Lovely Bones' moment of truth arrives, Susie abruptly changes her mind, effectively turning almost every preceding plot point into an infuriating red herring and depriving us of the emotional release Jackson so steadfastly prepared us for. What we're left with, ultimately, is an experience akin to taking a shot of morphine and watching someone play the videogame Myst for two hours (a span that might very well be reduced to 45 minutes if the film's copious slow-motion shots were all played at normal speed). And once the anodyne buzz wears off, the comedown is agonizing. rated this film 2 stars.