Yes, An Unfinished Life is slow and predictable, and its symbolism is so heavy-handed that it may well give the unwary a concussion. And no, nobody actually talks like these characters do — but because everyone in this determinedly old-fashioned movie speaks in the same improbable manner, it never seems false. And there’s also a lot to admire here — five good to great performances, a solid sense of place, gorgeous cinematography, and the kind of sincerity that can’t be faked.
Yet Life has been unceremoniously trashed for reasons that, I can’t help but think, have little to do with the movie itself. Since this film’s been sitting around, and is part and parcel of the rush by Miramax to dump everything with the Weinstein name on it before the end of September, Life was brushed off as inferior before it was even seen by anyone. And if its detractors want to play the “on the shelf too long” card (an often valid criticism), then it would only be fair to note that the pairing of Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman can’t possibly — as has been claimed — be copying the teaming of Clint Eastwood and Freeman, since this film existed before the much-praised Million Dollar Baby.
And then there’s the Jennifer Lopez factor. Putting it mildly, isn’t it about time the whole Ben and J-Lo overexposure thing was left to die, and we let her performances stand on their own merits? There is a problem with Lopez in the role of Jean Gilkyson, but it’s not one involving her acting. Rather it stems from an unfortunate career move a few years ago when Lopez made the stinker Enough. Since her character in that, and her Jean in this one, are both battered women who finally have enough of their respective mates, the specter of that earlier film is inevitable.
However, Lopez’s performance as the battered Jean who takes herself and her daughter, Griff (newcomer Becca Gardner), off to live with her estranged father-in-law, Einar Gilkyson (Redford), is a far cry from the cartoonish silliness of Enough. It may not be brilliant — to begin with, her part isn’t that well-written — but it’s certainly credible within the confines of the film. And it would be more so without the script’s stupidly trumped-up romance between Jean and Wyoming sheriff Crane Curtis (Josh Lucas, Stealth), which tends to make Jean look like she’s just not complete without a man in her life (the script’s worst miscalculation).
The story follows an almost archaic pattern. Einar hates Jean, blaming her for his son’s death in a car wreck (she was driving). So he doesn’t want her there — though the presence of a granddaughter he knew nothing of offers a bit of balance. Jean isn’t too thrilled with the situation herself. And then there’s the onlooker, Mitch (Freeman), Einar’s partner on the ranch (Griff actually mistakes the two for lovers), who was mauled by a bear the previous year and is a morphine-soothed invalid. It’s left to him to be the voice of reason — of course, since that’s the only role Freeman gets to play these days.
The question, of course, is whether the crusty Einar and the feisty — but rather beaten-down — Jean will make it up, and whether or not Einar’s heart will melt from dealing with Griff. And, being the kind of movie this is, the answers are a foregone conclusion. What matters are the characterizations and performances along the way. Redford and Freeman get the best lines (crusty old guys always do), with Redford getting the best of the best when he tells Griff, “I expect you to be polite to anyone who comes to that door — except any guy trying to sell his angle on God.” And the performances feel pleasantly effortless, thanks in no small part to some very real on-screen chemistry. It’s good to see Redford in such a role — easily his best since The Horse Whisperer — and it’s especially gratifying after seeing him wasted in Spy Game, and after witnessing his forced dramatics in The Clearing.
An Unfinished Life could have done without the caged-bear symbolism, sure, and the film travels pretty much to exactly where you expect it to go. But sometimes that’s what you want.
Rated PG-13 for some violence, including domestic abuse, and language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke