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May 12, 2006 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | May 12, 2006 |

An Unfinished Life is another of the films left on the shelf for the last few years, collecting dust and waiting, presumably, for the stigma attached to Jennifer Lopez’s acting career to blow over, or for Robert Redford to succumb to a fatal illness so that Disney’s Miramax could capitalize posthumously. Actually, it’s not hard to see why the movie was abandoned for so long; like director Lasse Hallström’s previous efforts, it’s another prestige “adult” film that’s nearly impossible to market. With a Hallström offering, studios are often left with no option but to release his films on weekends with little competition, in the hopes that word of mouth and/or Oscar buzz will eventually create an audience, a strategy with its fair share of success (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) and failure (The Shipping News, Something to Talk About). Like last week’s The Constant Gardener, An Unfinished Life has very little draw appeal; it’s the kind of movie you end up seeing because you have nothing better to do or because you feel you should see it; in either case, you’ll be glad you made the effort.

An Unfinished Life tracks the life of Einar Gilkyson (Robert Redford), an ornery rancher living alone amidst the vast landscapes of Wyoming (played here by British Columbia); his only companion is Mitch (Morgan Freeman), a fellow cowboy relegated a year prior to invalid status, compliments of a vicious bear mauling. Einar leads a life of comfortable monotony, administering morphine shots to Mitch each morning, managing the ranch, trekking into town daily to collect his mail, and otherwise persistently grieving over a son lost a decade before in a car accident.

Enter Jean (Jennifer Lopez), the wife of Einar’s dead son and driver of the ill-fated automobile, returning to Wyoming after a long absence, seeking shelter (along with her daughter) from an abusive ex-boyfriend (Damien Lewis). Reluctant at first to allow Jean to live on the ranch, the curmudgeonly Einar relents after discovering that Jean’s daughter, Griff (Becca Gardner), is actually his own grandchild.

From there, the storyline is familiar and predictable. Morgan Freeman (once again) provides the moral compass, guiding the characters as they gradually shed their hostilities, ultimately providing bookends to those open ellipses, all the while utilizing (somewhat lamely) the Chekhovian bear as the story’s core metaphor. The story — written by Mark and Virginia Spragg — is another in a long line of tired, anachronistic odes to the emotional unavailability of the male sex, chock-full of self-help platitudes and cloying sentimentality. It is neither an original nor a particularly compelling narrative, yet under the direction of Hallström, the story unfolds with contented Sunday-afternoon momentum, blooming gradually into full-blown catharsis.

Archaic themes and muddled plotlines aside, the film’s success rests primarily on the sympathies with which Redford and Freeman imbue their characters; Mr. Sundance quietly plays against type, providing a small glimpse of the existence that Butch Cassidy might have led had he lived long enough to settle into the life of an old man whose emotional grievances have mounted. And, for better or worse, Freeman’s character once again acts as the direct channel between the stubbornly cantankerous white man and his God. Though it’s difficult to imagine anyone more suited to that role than Freeman, it’s a testament to his acting talents that he can still provide such a richly textured performance without resorting to caricature. As for Lopez: Frankly she should be pleased to finally find a role that not even her limited acting talents could spoil; fortunately, she mostly acts as a sounding board to the superior talents of Redford and 11-year-old Gardner, who act circles around Ms. From-the-Block. Camryn Manheim, as a local waitress, and Josh Lucas, as Jean’s love interest, also provide capable performances in supporting roles.

Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and managing partner of its parent company, which prefers to remain anonymous for reasons pertaining to public relations. He lives in Ithaca, New York.

An Unfinished Life / Dustin Rowles

Film | May 12, 2006 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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