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Dustin Putman

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An Unfinished Life (2005)
2 Stars

Directed by Lasse Hallstrom
Cast: Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez, Morgan Freeman, Becca Gardner, Josh Lucas, Camryn Manheim, Damian Lewis, Lynda Boyd
2005 – 107 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for some violence including domestic abuse, and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 4, 2005.

"An Unfinished Life" is the latest long-in-the-can Miramax production that the studio is quickly clearing out as they separate from the Weinstein brothers (there have been two others in the last two weeks—"The Brothers Grimm" and "Underclassman"). While the quality of those two films is open to question, there is little about this small-town family drama that suggests why it has been on the shelf since 2003. The cast is first-rate, with three solid lead performances by Robert Redford (2004's "The Clearing"), Jennifer Lopez (2005's "Monster-in-Law"), and Morgan Freeman (2004's "Million Dollar Baby"); the widescreen lensing of British Columbia, posing as Wyoming, by Oliver Stapleton (2002's "Birthday Girl") is gorgeous, complete with rolling green hills and luscious wide open pastures; and the characters are, for the most part, nicely defined and endearing even in their flaws. The drawback, one assumes, is not so much what the movie is, but what it turned out not to be. From the veteran stars to director Lasse Hallstrom (2001's "The Shipping News") to producer Harvey Weinstein, "An Unfinished Life" was prepped to be prestige Oscar bait, and what it ended up being was just a small, low-key, pleasant, but ultimately slight, entertainment.

Tired of being knocked around by her abusive boyfriend, Gary (Damian Lewis), single mother Jean Gilkyson (Jennifer Lopez) finally garners the courage to leave him and start a new life for herself and 11-year-old daughter Griff (Becca Gardner). Without anyone else to turn to, Jean shows up on the doorstep of her bitter former father-in-law, Einar (Robert Redford), asking for a place to stay until she can get on her feet. A retired rancher who still blames Jean for the accident death of his son twelve years earlier (she was driving the car on that fateful night), Einar is hesitant but cannot refuse help. As Jean starts making money working at a local diner and sleeping with the town sheriff, Crane (Josh Lucas), Griff finally finds the makeshift family unit she never really had in her new grandfather and his best friend/former ranch hand, Mitch (Morgan Freeman).

"An Unfinished Life" is light on marketable plot hooks, but filled with character-based conflicts that, in pure Old Hollywood fashion, iron themselves out in the end. These include Jean's struggle to raise Griff and recognize her needs before her own; Mitch's process of coming-to-terms with a bear mauling that left him severely hurt and nearly paralyzed the year before; the threat that Gary brings when he finally tracks down Jean's whereabouts and begins stalking her, and Einar's difficulties in letting go of the past and forgiving Jean for something that, in the end, was nothing more than an accident. Where these threads lead aren't particularly surprising, but the film has a laid-back appeal that mostly avoids overly sentimental trappings.

The most emotionally resounding element of the story is in Einar's attempts to build a relationship with granddaughter Griff—the last connection he has with his deceased son—even as he still blames Jean for his son's death. As Einar visits his son's grave every day, located on the ranch's property, there is a father-son bond and strong sense of loss that looms over the proceedings even as one of the central figures has long since died. This theme of child loss is reverberated in a powerful scene—maybe the picture's best—where Nina (Camryn Manheim), a co-worker at the coffee shop Jean gets a job at, tells of losing her own daughter in a drowning accident. "Children aren't supposed to go before their parents," Nina tells Jean as a way of getting her to understand Einar's grief. Camryn Manheim (2005's "Dark Water"), warmly underplaying things in a good supporting role, handles this scene and many others just right, exposing her own regrets without going for over-the-top dramatic histrionics.

As Einar and longtime pal Mitch, who Einar cares for as he still rehabilitates from the bear attack, Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman are as unfaltering and honest as usual, enriching their parts with a dignity and vulnerability that brings them three-dimensionality. Both actors also share a palpable chemistry with newcomer Becca Gardner, a natural young actress holding her own quite efficiently alongside such screen veterans and icons. As Jean, Jennifer Lopez attempts to dirty herself down as a small-town gal with man trouble and her own share of guilt in the choices she's made in her life, but Lopez still looks to beautiful to convincingly pull it off. Physical miscasting aside, this is Lopez's most raw and impressive performance since 2001's "Angel Eyes," proving again that she has a whole lot more talent than some give her credit for. Finally, Josh Lucas (2005's "Stealth"), a great rising actor in his own right, is wasted in a slim part as Jean's possible new beau. It's a part anyone could have played, and it does him no favors.

"An Unfinished Life" was written by Mark Spragg and Virginia Korus Spragg, and they do a nice enough job laying out the conflicts and knocking them out as they deal with them in non-maudlin ways. At the same time, they could have excelled further had there been added depth in some of the relationships (Jean and daughter Griff, especially, don't share enough time together to forge a believable mother-daughter feel) and less reliance on Screenwriting 101 cliches where everything has to tie itself up with a bow by the end of the third act. Whether this detriment lays in the hands of the writers, or if the missing (or, dare it be said, unfinished) pieces were left on the cutting room floor, remains to be seen, but they do not fatally lessen the understated charms the film has to offer. Lasse Hallstrom presented a fuller, more cutting glimpse of the small-town experience with 1993's marvelous "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," but until he can make his next unqualified triumph, the likably old-fashioned, consistently well-acted "An Unfinished Life" will do just fine.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman