If you took one-half of Clint Eastwood’s Invictus and one-half of Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, you would wind up with approximately one very good film. Both of these anticipated dramas (from Oscar-winning auteurs) are peppered with promise, but they’re ultimately muddled productions. All I can guess is that both of these seemingly unstoppable directors have crashed into stories that are too weighty and too foreign for their own methods. Invictus is a portrait of post-apartheid South Africa, blended with elements of a sports film. The Lovely Bones is an FX-heavy journey into the afterlife, blended with the ingredients of a crime thriller. Mixing all these genres can sometimes yield masterful results (Eastwood has done the personal sports drama better with Million Dollar Baby and Jackson did the fanasty-thriller tale better with Heavenly Creatures), but not in the case of these films.
Perhaps both directors felt too much pressure from adapting such sacred sources. Eastwood is capturing Nelson Mandela’s story in the most high-profile version of the South African leader’s life ever released in theaters. Plus, Mandela is played by Morgan Freeman, probably the most ideal choice of casting since Patrick Stewart played Professor X. Maybe there were too many historical elements to fit into a tidy package, or maybe rugby (the film’s central activity) is just too foreign to be translated by a bunch of Americans. Regardless, Invictus is neither a rousing sports movie, nor the definitive examination of Mandela’s impact on his country. Freeman gives a terrific performance, but Eastwood’s relaxed filmmaking style undercuts what should be an energetic world. Eastwood is better suited directing stories that exist on the fringes of genre (Bird, Unforgiven, Letters From Iwo Jima), rather than aiming dead-center.
The Lovely Bones comes to audiences after a long gestation, one that involved casting changes (Mark Wahlberg replaced Ryan Gosling) and rigorous special effects. While not based on factual events, The Lovely Bones is based on one of the most popular novels of the decade. When Peter Jackson was revealed as the film version’s co-writer and director, expectations soared that he would bring the proper balance of imagination and violence to this disturbing family epic. The story of a young girl who dwells in the afterlife following her brutal murder, it was easily assumed that Peter Jackson could knock this one out of the park. Unfortunately, the film is messy. There are moments of total beauty, aided by songs from Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, and a score by Brian Eno. However, there is also far too much from the book stuffed into the film. Characters and subplots are wedged-in at the worst moments, which causes horrible pacing problems.
In an already complicated narrative, Jackson may have been too loyal to the source material, and the film suffers. This is not The Lord of the Rings, his last book adaptation, and does not require the same alignment with mythology. Another consideration: Peter Jackson is very talented at using the irony in violence (much like Sam Raimi or the Coen Bros.), creating macabre humor in the Rings trilogy as well as earlier work like Dead Alive, Bad Taste, and The Frighteners. The Lovely Bones has no room for humor, no room for levity, and this may be why Jackson has a difficult time lifting the story up for air. There is one scene near the very end of the film, that I will not spoil, that is 100% Peter Jackson. It’s also an example of a different kind of violence (humorous) than the rest of the film. You can’t make the death (and family mourning) of a 14-year old girl ironic or absurd, and that’s why maybe Jackson wasn’t the perfect choice after all.