By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Every parent's nightmare is reflected in the creepily passive face of George Harvey, the child killer at the center of The Lovely Bones.
George is essayed by the boundless actor (and Golden Globe nominee) Stanley Tucci, with subtle tics — that nervous giggle haunts me — barely masking the evil within. Nothing outward about this character is threatening, which is his scariest characteristic. With his unkempt comb-over, tight lips and pale green eyes, George appears incapable of harming a fly. Then again, so did Norman Bates.
George is a methodical murderer, but his latest crime left a supernatural eyewitness: the victim herself, 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), who lived just down the street. Susie is now trapped in limbo, unwilling to relinquish her fingertip connection to life. The "in-between," as Susie calls it, is where she watches over her grieving family, and a killer who's preparing to do it again.
Director Peter Jackson also gets caught in that postmortem in-between, so enamored with portraying Susie's imagination — splashy fragments of memory, puppy love and symbolic fantasy — that mortal coil drama suffers. Even without reading Alice Sebold's novel, it's easy to detect where key plot elements are excised or undernourished, presumably lending more time for Jackson's CGI indulgences.
All of those DayGlo colors and pop art flourishes distract from the stark black and white personalities of George and Susie. Not that Jackson needed to depict George's crimes against her — this is a rare occasion when a filmmaker takes the high road regarding heinous acts — but even separately they feel connected, a gripping seesaw of innocence and depravity.
Everything else in The Lovely Bones feels incomplete, ill-conceived or, in the case of Susie's elders, mistakenly cast. Mark Wahlberg's fatherly role is oddly intense before it's necessary, and over the top afterward. Rachel Weisz's mother role is the worst victim of Jackson's adaptation, disappearing without much cause, and reappearing without heft for a numbing anticlimax. I'm not sure what movie Susan Sarandon signed on for; her boozy, bad influence grandma is better suited for a revival of Auntie Mame.
Only newcomer Rose McIver as Susie's sister Lindsay contributes to the tension The Lovely Bones is capable of delivering, as a possible victim and Nancy Drew wanna-be. But, again, she's playing off Tucci's deceptively calm menace, like Ronan in her best moments.
On paper, The Lovely Bones seemed like a sure-fire movie project, and how it went wrong is a moving target. Maybe it's too timid, or bogus (nobody seriously suspects George soon enough for credibility's sake), or Jackson's visual panache got the best of him this time.
Or perhaps some ideas should remain on paper, with all of the nuance and details necessary to satisfy, between the covers of a book.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs. tampabay.com/movies.