Robert Redford may not have many problems, but being a good and decent human being is surely one of them. We just know him too well to believe him as a curmudgeon. Though he does a fine job as Einar Gilkyson, a genuinely grumpy old man, it’s hard to set aside who he really is. The collective mind tends to wander to such thoughts as, “He looks younger in his new stubble than he has in years” – not an appropriate mindset for emotional involvement in a film.
“An Unfinished Life” is thoroughly predictable. We know from the first frames that Redford will soften (a little), Morgan Freeman will offer wisdom (a lot), and Jennifer Lopez – well, what exactly do we expect from Jennifer Lopez? Whatever the expectation, she gives a surprisingly understated performance - almost to the point of lifelessness - as Jean Gilkyson. Given her pop culture status, she blends quietly into the landscape of the rural isolation of Marion, Iowa, which in actuality is Kamloops, British Columbia (for bottom line reasons we may assume).
Jean (Ms. Lopez) was once married to Griffin, the son of Einar (Mr. Redford) who was killed some years ago while Jean was driving. Einar has neither forgiven nor seen her until she walks down the dusty lane to his shabby cabin with Griff (Becca Gardner), the granddaughter he never knew he had. They have come to stay. The stage is perfectly set for confrontation, toleration, and reconciliation. Out back in a second cabin lives Mitch (Morgan Freeman), once sheep raising partner of Einar, now an invalid condemned to serious chronic pain after being mauled by a grizzly. Einar takes care of him with quiet compassion. The bear has since been caught and caged.
Action is needed in this scenario, so our attention is directed to the symbolism of the grizzly and to the reality of Gary (Damien Lewis), the psychopathic woman-beater from whom Jean was running when she sought shelter with her father-in-law. Will the bear get loose and kill? Will Gary return and kill? Will either Gary or the bear be killed? If one, which one? These questions are intended to hold our attention. They don’t.
The downside of celebrity is that a striking plot is needed if movie stars are to lose their real selves in their pretend selves. Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman can’t do that in a slow moving, reflective story, so we end up watching them act rather than becoming involved. The building of the hard won relationships among the gruff rancher, the injured partner, the broke daughter-in-law, and the very fine granddaughter is worthy but dull. Director Lasse Hallstrom (of the wonderful “The Cider House Rules”) has used his legendary attention to detail to create a ranch that has overwhelmed its owners and is on the way to returning itself to nature. The problem here is not the director or the actors, but the writers.
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