Film Reviews: Wednesday, September 07, 2005
An Unfinished Life
Starring Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, and Jennifer Lopez. Directed by Lasse Hallström. Written by Mark Spragg and Virginia Korus Spragg. Rated PG-13.
Bearing a Loss

Good taste and good intentions make An Unfinished Life less than exciting.


Originally slated for release in Christmas 2003, An Unfinished Life comes to us now because the studio that produced it, Miramax, is unloading all the films on its shelves as it undergoes a transition. The timing of the release is as happy as can be expected for a movie that’s good enough to stand out in the doldrums of late summer/early fall but not good enough to stand out in an awards season, even though Oscars have been given to worse films pitched at adult audiences.

This one stars Jennifer Lopez as Jean, a widowed mother who flees from an abusive boyfriend to a small town in Wyoming, where she turns up on the doorstep of her former father-in-law, Einar Gilkyson (Robert Redford). The old man does not give her a warm welcome; she was behind the wheel in the car accident that killed his only son. Jean has a trump card, though, in the form of her 11-year-old daughter Griff (Becca Gardner). The girl, named after her father, is Einar’s granddaughter, although Jean had previously hidden the existence of both from each other.

The script by Mark Spragg and Virginia Korus Spragg is sparse in its use of dialogue, and as long as the film sticks to being a small-scale study of people with long-buried issues, it does all right. Redford and Lopez are both a bit too smooth for these rough-hewn characters, but they both give creditable performances despite being miscast. On the other hand, Morgan Freeman is cast a little too well as Mitch, one of Einar’s former ranch hands who was rendered an invalid after being mauled by a bear. He’s quite good as usual, though we’ve seen him play loyal, crusty, lovable sidekicks too many times, even if his part in Million Dollar Baby came after he’d filmed this movie.

However, An Unfinished Life has bigger problems. The bear that mauled Mitch takes up an awful lot of screen time — it’s captured, placed in a zoo, visited by the major characters, and freed at Mitch’s request — and the animal doesn’t end up doing very much in the story, nor does it function well as any sort of metaphor. The reappearance of Jean’s ex-boyfriend (Damian Lewis) is unwelcome for more than one reason. The character is too much of a stock villain to have much resonance. At least the movie isn’t cheap enough to have the bear kill the ex-boyfriend.

The restraint shown by director Lasse Hallström is admirable when compared with his saccharine-laced previous entries like The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, and The Shipping News. Even so, he can’t help muffling all the material’s emotions in his customary good taste. The movie’s temperature remains at a steady lukewarm despite its potential. As commendable as An Unfinished Life is for addressing its audience as adults, it emerges as a bit of a bore.

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