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MOVIE REVIEW: Jackson's attempt to tell tragic story leaves scattered mess with 'Lovely Bones'

Special Photo: Sony Pictures. Saoirse Ronan stars as Susie Salmon in "The Lovely Bones."

Special Photo: Sony Pictures. Saoirse Ronan stars as Susie Salmon in "The Lovely Bones."

"The Lovely Bones"

2 stars out of 4

Considering it is based on a hugely popular best-selling novel and is helmed by the man who spearheaded the highest-grossing movie trilogy of all-time, the scattershot and stylistically disjointed movie version of "The Lovely Bones" is a particularly notable disappointment.

Having been shifted at the last minute from a wide pre-Christmas to a post-New Year's opening, it appears that the studio releasing it is as tentative and unsure of how to market it as Peter Jackson was while directing it.

In retrospect, adapting writer Alice Sebold's stark and uncommonly unsentimental book for the screen was next to impossible. In an effort to offset what is easily the most queasy subject matter imaginable (the rape and murder of a child), Jackson and his two "Lord of the Rings" co-writers concocted a parallel fantasy world that is unfittingly upbeat, vibrantly colorful and one that more resembles the landscape seen in "The Wizard of Oz" or an episode of "Teletubbies" than a gritty and disturbing mystery thriller.

Thanks to its relative restraint and noticeable lack of CGI, the first act delivers the film's sole bit of emotional wallop. Narrator and lead character Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) talks about her ordinary Pennsylvanian life, her recent interest in photography, a boy from school she might like and her own murder on Dec. 6, 1973. She speaks in the light, bouncy manner you'd expect from any happy and easily distracted 14-year-old girl on the cusp of womanhood. She's not sad because she's now in a place where there is no sadness.

Susie also identifies her killer for us. A quiet and unassuming but distinctly creepy neighbor, the divorced George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) doesn't appear to have a job and spends most of his time building doll houses. The outwardly meek and humdrum George might as well have "serial killer" tattooed on his forehead.

Within 10 minutes, we know the victim and her perpetrator and get a spinal chill of the impending devastating ripple effect the event will take on Susie's family. Mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz) and father Jack (Mark Wahlberg) start off on the same emotionally reactive page but one's unrelenting obsession leads to their eventual split. Kid sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) handles everything relatively well and is responsible for the story's only true bit of suspense later on. Playing the perpetually drunk "Grandma Lynn," Susan Sarandon is called on to provide some of the most unfitting, squirm-inducing comic relief and it is truly embarrassing to watch.

Almost assuredly because of time constraints, the filmmakers excised huge chunks of the book's subplots involving Susie's would-be boyfriend, Abigail's affair with a police detective and (thankfully) the rape scene. Those familiar with the book will also note major time and date discrepancies regarding the ultimate fates of two of the principal characters.

Sebold's book took an immensely difficult subject and gave it an original, borderline optimistic and surrealistic spin. It left us with the notion that the departed might still be interested in what happens to those they once loved, that family ties can never be fully severed and that all pipers must eventually be paid.

Jackson and company took on a mammoth task with what was surely the best of intentions, but instead of deep, low-key, bittersweet introspection, he gave us faux Hollywood emotion bathed in the synthetic, day-glow glare of a TV candy commercial. (Paramount)