Mark Wahlberg & Rachel Weisz in the movie The Lovely Bones

Many people, including two of my supervisors, have told me they find Peter Jackson's film version of "The Lovely Bones" a gut-wrenching and valuable experience, which was certainly the reaction of millions who read Alice Sebold's best-selling novel.

But sometimes a major director becomes enthralled with the cinematic prospects of material for which he is not ideally suited.

Jackson, best known for his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, has cast "The Lovely Bones" well, and he draws an especially impressive performance from Saoirse Ronan (the self-hating snitch of "Atonement") as Susie Salmon, the abducted, raped and murdered girl at the center of this story. Jackson has not cast himself well, though. He has slathered the imagery in the wrong kind of wonderment and hyperbole, both on Earth and in heaven.

It was all there in the book, but so was Sebold's attention to detail and her welcome cumulative details of everyday life before and after Susie's murder. The adaptation, nervous about offending anyone, leaves out anything that isn't completely "on point," and that does not favor the thriller and suspense aspects of the plot.

The book left me impressed but uneasy, and not just because of the subject matter: Too often I felt artfully manipulated into waiting to see the very, very bad man down the block, Mr. Harvey, get his comeuppance. In the film Stanley Tucci plays the serial-killing pederast (though the sexual violation is left oblique in the movie), and it's such a consciously twisted performance, all you think leaving the theater is: If only serial-killing pederasts were this easy to spot in real life.

Much of the story Susie spends in reflection while living in "The In-Between," an ever-shifting series of afterlife landscapes where the bright, curious, dead young girl gazes down on those she left behind. Jackson imagines The In-Between as a place of relentless visual amazements. If you've seen a Claritin ad, the results will be familiar.

And if you have seen Jackson's early film "Heavenly Creatures," a black comedy based on a real-life case involving female adolescence gone wrong, you'll recognize the compositions and tilted framing and heightened sense of drama he's struggling to keep under control here. The tone wobbles throughout. The actors struggle. Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz, two of the most honest and forthright screen talents going, play Susie's parents; Susan Sarandon has a boozy field day as hard-swigging Grandma Lynn; everyone works hard and honorably and sincerely.

And yet the specificity of these characters, and what they do to cope with their rage and loss, has been blanched out of the final product. The characters are cogs in a miserable situation, but the film itself feels like a feat of engineering, not sympathetic imagination. Only Ronan's presence and grace lift it above the queasy routine.

In recent weeks the film's marketing campaign, in the wake of skeptical early critical and audience response to "The Lovely Bones," has shifted to focus on girls of Susie's age or thereabouts. I'm not sure how I feel about that, either.


MPAA rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material involving disturbing violent content and images, and some language).

Running time: 2:19.

Cast: Mark Wahlberg (Jack); Rachel Weisz (Abigail); Susan Sarandon (Grandma Lynn); Stanley Tucci (Mr. Harvey); Michael Imperioli (Len Fenerman); Saoirse Ronan (Susie Salmon).

Credits: Directed by Peter Jackson; written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson, based on the novel by Alice Sebold; produced by Carolynne Cunningham, Walsh, Jackson and Aimee Peyronnet. A DreamWorks Pictures release.


The Lovely Bones Movie Review - Mark Wahlberg & Rachel Weisz