THE LOVELY BONES
starring Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci
screenplay by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson, based on the novel by Alice Sebold
directed by Peter Jackson
THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS
starring Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Verne Troyer, Tom Waits
screenplay by Terry Gilliam & Charles McKeown
directed by Terry Gilliam
by Walter Chaw It's all a little too Puff, the Magic Dragon, isn't it. The Lovely Bones finds Peter Jackson regressing into his worst instincts and a newfound squeamishness in a film about, ick, a fourteen-year-old girl's rape and murder, leaving the most unsavoury details of Alice Sebold's revered source novel to the golden-lit imagination. (Give this to Precious: it's exploitation with the decency to titillate.) This isn't to say the book is worth much of a shit, but to say that it at least has the courage to talk about a rape and a murder where the film only has the mustard to romanticize loss and suggest that 1973 was so long ago the freak next door didn't raise any flags. It's also to say that what began its existence as a study of the bonds that hold a family together through the caprice of living has been reduced in its film adaptation to a murder mystery without a mystery, and a supernatural thriller that at every turn reminds of how much better Jackson's The Frighteners is in dealing with almost the exact same set of themes.
Most troubling is Jackson's own declaration: "But to do anything that depicted violence towards a young person in a way that wasn't serious. I have no interest in filming it at all." In other words, his elision of the central event in the story is an artistic choice to render The Lovely Bones empty, without consequence, and safe for a mass consumption that frankly isn't going to happen with or without the rape. I'm not even certain of what he means by "in a way that wasn't serious": is he saying he's not capable of depicting rape and murder in a serious way, or that film is not capable of depicting rape and murder in a serious way? No matter how you slice it, it sounds like Jackson is confessing that The Lovely Bones is not a serious movie. That's not an admission shocking once you've seen the picture, but it's shocking considering the subject matter. In the same interview, Jackson speaks of wanting to make a film his young daughter could watch. Translated into conventional parlance, this means that if he hasn't left his scrotum in a shoebox somewhere, he's doing a pretty good imitation of someone who has.
It's symptomatic of a childishness that has protag Susie (Saoirse Ronan of the clear eyes) providing evergreen post-mortem narration as she frolics in pastoral, CGI-destroyed purgatory. Susan Sarandon is unbelievably bad as caretaker Grandma Lynn, the frontispiece of a 1970s "Davey & Goliath" structure that takes its cultural cues from The Box in being mindlessly distracted by minutiae. Tell me again why this film is set in a garish 1973? The effect of it is that when Jackson isn't fucking around with his misguided period noodling, he's fucking around in a What Dreams May Come computer-generated fantasia--the two settings having no real connection to one another save their mutually ironclad dedication to avoiding anything of gravity. The killer, giving away nothing, is bad special effect George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), the next-door neighbour with a dollhouse fetish whom Jackson follows to a narrative dead end and dispatches of cleanly. Given that Jackson previously mined truckloads of believable pathos from the death of a wizard and then a giant monkey, his failure to locate one true thread of human emotion in this plastic-fantastic vision of child-murder and the afterlife is irrefutable proof of his befuddlement with the material. The Lovely Bones is an ugly mess: overwrought and amateurish, it tries too hard at the wrong things and eventually, pathetically becomes a suspense yarn with no tension to speak of. It really sucks.
Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus really sucks, too, for many of the same reasons. It has no spine, no purpose, no direction; it's as visually cacophonous as every Gilliam film is to some degree, and it uses CGI as a crutch that's ultimately crippling to narrative/thematic coherence. Very simply, it, like The Lovely Bones, feels juvenile, desperate, and masturbatory. Key sideshow attraction of the thing is Heath Ledger's final performance as shyster Tony, accused of all manner of horrible things and looking to rescue his soul from the clutches of The Devil (Tom Waits) through the salvation of fetching Valentina (Lily Cole). Her dad is the immortal Dr. Parnassus (the immortal Christopher Plummer), who travels England or Canada or some quasi-European backwater in a mobile stage seeking to astral-project ninny-housewives into their subconscious in order to get them to reject their venal materialism. Or someshit. The whole thing's an excuse for Gilliam to indulge in his Monty Python mischief before crashing into mawkishness in a sequence where Johnny Depp steps in for the late Ledger and salutes a small flotilla of paper boats bearing the images of Lady Di and others, dead before their time (like Dr. Parnassus! Or Heath Ledger!) and destined to be ageless for it. It's not poignant in any way, just maudlin--and made worse because the film isn't about immortality. To be fair, the film isn't about anything.
Consider the embarrassing sequence with Jude Law, another Ledger surrogate, battling a quartet of Russian mobsters in Dr. Parnassus's titular Imaginarium that ends with our boys literally taking refuge beneath their mother's skirts, which promptly explode. Or the moment where the Devil appears as a poorly-rendered snake. Or the endless mugging of barker Anton (Andrew Garfield). But the nadir is the inexplicable decision to have Verne Troyer, as Dr. Parnassus's favourite whipping boy, be the voice of wit and wisdom throughout. Only a real, genuine idiot would think to cast Troyer in not just a speaking role, but arguably the central role of the film as well; Gilliam's penchant for having a little person in each of his films has finally cost him dear in what, by all rights, ought to be his last chance at this kind of budget. Co-writer Charles McKeown also collaborated with Gilliam on Brazil (a movie that doesn't hold up) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the film this one most resembles. As for Ledger's swan song, he seems lost in this mess--undeniably compelling in a role that gives him nothing to do. Gilliam's described the picture as autobiographical, as this diary of an artist who keeps trying to amaze when no one's paying attention anymore. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus obligingly acts like a toddler vying for attention: it's cute, but mostly just obnoxious. It's sad, but not for the right reasons. Originally published: December 25, 2009.