In Theaters: The Lovely Bones

Movieline Score: 4

Coca-Cola is having an interesting Oscar season. A can of the stuff makes a cameo in The Road, a serendipitous discovery that turns out to be the most powerful reminder of a better world the film has to offer; in The Lovely Bones, however, the two bottles of Coke shown chilling in a pedophile's underground "clubhouse" are a young heroine's first clue that the world is a worse place than she could have ever imagined. I suppose all attention is good attention for Coca-Cola Co., but I had to wonder what they made of the shot of George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), lowering a bottle to crotch level and popping the cap right in the face of 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan). The moment is crass, overblown and jarringly ineffectual; metaphor as hissing bludgeon. Its suggestion is also the ultimate in anti-product placement and one of the more obvious reminders -- in a film filled with aesthetic bloopers that beg for someone, anyone (even the suits at a global soda-making conglomerate) to step in and do some vetting -- that Peter Jackson answers to nobody.

Autonomy seemingly runs amok in The Lovely Bones, Jackson's adaptation of Alice Sebold's mammoth bestseller. The director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong is now famous for adapting famous texts, but with Bones returns to a realm more akin to the film that garnered not only Oscars and box office bones but a critical reputation: Heavenly Creatures. When Jackson's films are not themselves fantasy worlds, his characters are obsessed with creating them: in Creatures two 14-year-old girls build various worlds of star worship and role-playing, eventually killing the mother who threatens to separate them; in The Lovely Bones key characters are held in thrall by the idea of escape, of creating and being contained by a more perfect world, one they control and which helps them cope.

In Susie Salmon's case the coping gets serious: her perfect place happens to be a personalized version of heaven, which she is consigned to after being murdered by the local psychopath, in a painfully overdone scene which ends with Susie making a bolt for what seems like freedom. True to Sebold's conception of the afterlife as a-religious and yet spiritually redemptive and aesthetically gratifying, Jackson makes death look like the answer to a teen girl's prayers: in a bizarre parallel to the fantasy sequences in Precious, Susie is shown vamping in magazine cover photo shoots and romping to music video beats; her crush's face looms as big as the sea. Existence in this Teen Beat/High Times afterworld is a random, CGI assortment of trees whose leaves blow into birds and fly away and the persistent assertion of consciousness that ties Susie to the world -- the family -- that's not yet ready to let her go.


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