Another sleepy, sweeping soft-serve melodrama from director Lasse Hallstrom ("The Shipping News," "Chocolat," "Cider House Rules"), "An Unfinished Life" stars Robert Redford as a grizzly Wyoming rancher who resentfully takes in his long-estranged, widowed daughter-in-law (Jennifer Lopez) when she reluctantly turns up seeking shelter from an abusive boyfriend.
Still bitterly nursing the loss of his son some 11 years ago in a car accident for which Einer (Redford) blames Jean (Lopez), the unfriendly ol' cuss becomes even more surly when introduced to Griff (Becca Gardner), an attentive, 11-year-old tomboy granddaughter he never knew he had.
Emotionally credible and transportingly photographed, it's a film that wears its out-sized metaphors well (Redford and the girl bond over freeing a recently captured bear he'd previously tried to kill). But structurally it's so lacking in imagination (suppose Lopez will fall for the handsome, strong but non-threatening sheriff played by Josh Lucas?) that the story arc seems to have been drawn on graph paper rather than written in a script.
Even the characters seem to understand their lives are on a three-act schedule: When Lopez's violent ex-boyfriend (Damian Lewis) inevitably arrives on the scene late in the film (after being run out of town once already by Redford), his presence is briefly acknowledged (he threatens Lopez), then completely ignored (despite the earlier encounter, she doesn't tell anyone) until it's expedient to the plot.
Redford gives a wonderful, warmly gruff performance full of personality (he mumbles to himself habitually), pent-up resentment, and sublimated soul. He's matched by Morgan Freeman, playing a ranch hand who endures the deep, debilitating scars of having once been mauled by the aforementioned bear. Cared for by Redford ever since, they share an amusingly contentious friendship, but Freeman is mostly around to act as an advice-giving sage. "How do you want her to remember you?" he scolds Redford for not making friends with his granddaughter.
Unfortunately, Lopez proves to be the movie's weak link. Her underwritten character -- largely a catalyst for change in others -- needed an actress who could bring vividly to life her unexplored emotional history and give texture to her vulnerabilities. The part calls for an actress who could, without losing audience sympathy, play the selfish insensitivity of hopping into bed with the sheriff right under the nose of her dead husband's still broken-hearted father who has just given her a safe haven when she had nowhere else to go. Cate Blanchett or Sandra Bullock would have been spectacular in the role. But Lopez -- who hasn't given a performance that popped off the screen since Steven Soderbergh's "Out of Sight" -- isn't equal to the task.
Hallstrom's atmospheric but spongy direction also does the film a disservice. While he nails several scenes (the reveal of Lopez's battered face in the opening moments is subtle but quite shocking) and nicely underplays some important incidentals (Redford's bad history with booze), most of the time he's just too obvious, as when Redford visits his son's grave (on a hill overlooking the ranch) several times to fill in plot details with rhetorical exposition.
While "An Unfinished Life" will likely strike a chord with the same audiences that found themselves affected by Hallstrom's other gauzy Hollywood films, its considerable merits (who wouldn't want to see a film starring Redford and Freeman?) cannot cancel out its pedestrian shortcomings. With more imagination and emotional grit, this film might have been a raw, almost visceral cinematic experience instead of feeling like the work of a romance novelist striving to be taken seriously.
Run time: 108 mins
In Theaters: Friday 16th September 2005
Box Office USA: $8.5M
Box Office Worldwide: $18.6M
Distributed by: Miramax Films
Production compaines: Miramax Films, Revolution Studios, Initial Entertainment Group (IEG), The Ladd Company, Kalis Productions GmbH & Co. Zweite KG, Persistent Entertainment, Unfinished Films
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 53%
Fresh: 74 Rotten: 66
IMDB: 7.1 / 10
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Starring: Robert Redford as Einar Gilkyson, Jennifer Lopez as Jean Gilkyson, Morgan Freeman as Mitch Bradley, Becca Gardner as Griff Gilkyson, Josh Lucas as Crane Curtis, Damian Lewis as Gary Winston, Camryn Manheim as Nina, Lynda Boyd as Kitty, Rob Hayter as Deputy, P. Lynn Johnson as Shelter Supervisor, Byron Lucas as Motorcycle Rider, Trevor Moss as Griffin Gilkyson, R. Nelson Brown as Kent, Dillard Brinson as Gnome Owner, Jason Diablo as Customer #1
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