PLOT: A murdered girl points to her killer from beyond the grave.
BOTTOM LINE: An unusual plot and even more unusual photography, but the movie often feels like business as usual.
CAST: Mark Wahlberg, Saoirse Ronan, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci
As "The Lovely Bones" undertakes its unconventional approach to a murder mystery - we know who did it and are waiting for the victim to solve the crime - the film spends a lot of time wandering through a fanciful place called "the in-between."
A kind of limbo for those who are only 99.9 percent gone, this is where pretty, prepubescent Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) ends up after entering the underground play space of her predatory neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci, perfectly icky). Clipped before she could blossom, Susie feels cheated; she cannot quite let go. Her father, Jack (Mark Wahlberg), still senses her presence, even though her mother, Abigail (Rachel Weisz), has moved on.
What does the pre-afterlife look like? In the hands of director Peter Jackson (who covered similar territory in "Heavenly Creatures"), it bubbles and blooms, a fantasia of forests and meadows and Ronan's luminescent, planet-size irises. These supersaturated scenes are gorgeous to behold. They also are largely irrelevant.
Co-written by Jackson and two collaborators working from Alice Sebold's novel, "The Lovely Bones" misplaces its imaginative energies. Jack and Abigail feel like parental units, not people; Harvey, stripped of the back story Sebold gave him, becomes just another creep with a comb-over; Susan Sarandon, as a tough-talking, pill-popping grandma, feels like a character borrowed from another studio's comedy.
Thanks to Susie's running narration, however, some of Sebold's words remain intact. Susie's sad but hopeful thoughts on love, loyalty and letting go - powerfully summed up in her final, shivery lines - offer hints at the movie this could have been.