Tucci gives his all in 'The Lovely Bones'

The film "The Lovely Bones," based on Alice Sebold's bestseller, immediately lets the audience know two things: Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), a mere 14 years old, is murdered, and the man who lures her into an underground room — where he rapes and kills her — is a seemingly benign neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci).

The question that Susie asks after this horrific event, in a haunting voice over, is, Will there be justice? Will Harvey, a serial predator, be found out?

Sebold uses a familiar narrative device: Susie, this lovely, quintessential teen, now dead, is trapped in an incandescent purgatory, a morphing place called "the in-between." And it's from that vantage point she watches her parents cope with the loss of their beloved daughter. Both are devastated, mired in a wrenching grief and relentlessly pushing the case detective who has no leads or suspects.

The film is predicated on a reality that no parent ever wants to encounter, which is that beneath the patina of societal civility resides an unadorned evil and a pathology that is incomprehensible. Predators are ever with us. And our children, hobbled by their inherent innocence, cannot be completely protected.

Had director Peter Jackson ("The Lord of the Rings") explored that truth without dressing the film up with an over-the-top, psychedelic view of "the in-between," "The Lovely Bones" would have been a far edgier and engaging film.

Act one, after all, is wonderfully constructed. It is there that Susie is introduced as the pitch-perfect young adolescent, curious, sincere, on the cusp of love and possessing an innocence that is unscarred.

It also is in act one that we bear witness to the abiding grief of her parents and sister and brother, while George Harvey struggles with his demons a mere 50 yards away. Will he kill again and will his next victim be Susie's sister? But just as the tension builds, the narrative breaks and Susie is running through undulating, surreal fields or along golden beaches. It's a bit jarring. That isn't to say that had her point of view been used sparingly that it couldn't have been effective. There were moments when it was essential to the plot. But the key word is sparingly.

Having said that, there are many fine performances in this film, beginning with Ronan, who captures in a hundred different ways the intense, vulnerable, innocent teen-tween girl. Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz as Susie's father and mother are both excellent. As is Susan Sarandon in a cameo role as the boozy, far-from-domestic grandmother who arrives wanting to help.

And then there's Tucci, who delivers a quiet, nuanced portrayal as the malevolent and disturbing neighbor. Tucci is such a fine actor that to watch him work is reason enough to see "The Lovely Bones." He defines character actor. Always in the background, always extraordinary, a chameleon in his ability to change his appearance, his mannerisms, down to his walk and gestures. He is never the leading man, but always astonishingly good in supporting roles.

His career stretches back to 1985, and it's not hyperbole to say that he has done it all, receiving countless nominations for his fine performances to include winning two Golden Globes. Recently, he starred, so to speak, in "Julie & Julia" (as Meryl Streep's husband); he was memorable in "The Devil Wore Prada" (Streep's assistant), as he was in "The Pelican Brief," "Road to Perdition," "It Could Happen to You," and "Maid in Manhattan." He is so good, so accomplished, that he makes his craft seem effortless, and it is not uncommon to wonder if he was there at all. But of course he was, essential to every frame.

So many of Hollywood's headline performers are famous for playing themselves, over and over. Audiences enjoy watching them fill the screen, their familiarity comfortable and predictable. They define the term movie star. But Tucci defines the term actor, for that is what he can do: disappear into a role so completely that he, Tucci, is lost and it is the character that is remembered, not Tucci. Which is exactly what he achieves in "The Lovely Bones," making the film all the better for his presence and definitely worth finding.

Extraordinary Measures

Sick children: to see them doing daily battle with debilitating and potentially lethal diseases turns the word entertainment on its head. And yet it is a theme that's familiar in Hollywood.

The recently released "Extraordinary Measures" is about the rare affliction known as Pompe's disease, a form of muscular dystrophy that strikes children at an early age, all too often truncating their young lives; most don't live to be older than 8 or 9. The symptoms are enlarged organs and muscles that atrophy to the point where the children can't lift an arm to throw a small ball. It has to do with a missing enzyme that converts sugar in their muscles.

Imagine the agony of those parents who watch their children slowly say goodbye, growing weaker and less resilient as months and then years pass, and time grows ever shorter and symptoms become increasingly life threatening.

"Desperate Measures' is based on the true story of a father and mother, John and Aileen Crowley (Brendan Fraser and Keri Russell), who refuse to quietly say goodbye to their son and daughter who are both afflicted with Pompe's disease.

John, after reading all the literature, desperate for any possible breakthrough, sets out in search of a research scientist, one Dr. Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford), who is doing groundbreaking work regarding enzymes. He also is perpetually cranky and under-funded. While Crowley, a Harvard MBA, finds high-finance money, Stonehill concentrates on the cure. The game clock, sadly, is ticking for the Crowley children, who are both in crisis. Time is of the essence. It's a potentially interesting story, and yet it seems somewhat flat and clinical.

Surprisingly, the weakest part of "Extraordinary Measures" is the portrayal of Stonehill by Ford. Scientists, of course, can be eccentric and reclusive. However, if they're likable and seem to have a good heart, well, that is redemptive. But if they're self-absorbed, selfish and uncaring, then they're decidedly unattractive. Stonehill is the latter.

Ford's performance reminds viewers that he often plays someone who is short-tempered, out of sorts and verging on anger (all without a sense of humor, a quality that often saves Bruce Willis as he plays Bruce Willis over and over again).

Ford is a huge movie star and someone who audiences clearly enjoy spending time with. In this film, however, as written, he is miscast. The partnership between the parents and Stonehill is never satisfactory. Instead, Stonehill finds the parents and his fellow scientists intrusive and a distraction and too often becomes petulant. Not endearing qualities, and they detract from the film, consistently, until the end of act three when Stonehill softens, but by then it's too late.

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