Fans of the last two Miramax films from Swedish director Lasse Hallström — Chocolat and The Shipping News — may be happy to know that he has stuck to the exact same formula for his latest, An Unfinished Life. Like its predecessors, this is the tale of an itinerant single parent with a precocious daughter who comes to a small town to make a clean break with the recent past, only to end up finally confronting emotional issues, in the process helping the townspeople deal with theirs as well.
Unlike those last two movies, though, it isn’t insufferable, mainly because instead of pretty-boy gypsy Johnny Depp and sensitive girly-man Kevin Spacey, we get Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman as hard-livin’ libertarian cowboys. Hallström does his best to sweeten everything by drenching the proceedings in a syrupy score by Christopher Young (also of The Shipping News), but these men of the land resist the easy tears.
Redford has spent a decade or two pretending he is still a young man onscreen, but here he finally gives it up, sinking his teeth into full-on cranky-curmudgeon mode, muttering profanities under his breath (which seems to be the only reason for the film’s R rating), and yelling at that damn kid to get down off of his tree. Freeman still periodically slips into his now-standard shtick of being the stern-voiced conscience of all those around him. (Please, Morgan, please take a role as a liar soon — your acting muscles depend on it.). But he has problems of his own, mostly in the form of injuries inflicted by a bear that disfigured half his face and rendered him unable to walk.
The single parent is played by — and you’re gonna laugh — Jennifer Lopez. Wait, there’s more: The small town in Wyoming to which she flees is the place where she grew up, and yet she isn’t just the only Latina there, but also the only person who has somehow developed a hilariously fake southern accent (in about 50 percent of her scenes). “Do ya think ah’m a shitty mother?” she wonders aloud at one point. Nope, J. Lo — just a shitty actress. Actually, the role is not otherwise beyond her capabilities; it’s reminiscent, in fact, of her more successful battered-wife portrayal in Enough. It’s fair to assume that Hallström, being a nonnative English speaker, is not attuned to the differences in American accents — Michael Caine in Hallström’s Cider House Rules pours a barrel of fuel on that fire — but one of Lopez’ costars should have intervened.
Lopez plays Jean Gilkyson, widow of Griffin Gilkyson, who was the son of Einar (Redford). Ten years after surviving the car crash that killed her husband, Jean is escaping her abusive boyfriend Gary (Dreamcatcher‘s Damian Lewis) and runs with her daughter Griff (Becca Gardner) to Einar’s house, where the young girl can meet her grandfather for the first time. Problem is that Grandpa hates Mom because he blames her for killing his son. Fortunately, Grandpa hates wife-beaters — the people, not the tank tops — even more.
The bear that mauled Einar’s partner Mitch (Freeman) is still around, captured early on and put in a local zoo, but Mitch becomes obsessed with it. Soon it’s clear that the animal is a metaphor … but let’s let Jennifer Lopez explain it, as quoted in the press kit: “The bear is what we all wrestle with. Everybody has their bear in life. It’s about conquering that bear and letting him go.” And you thought “Jenny from the Block” was profound.
Wyoming, not surprisingly, looks great on camera. Director of photography Oliver Stapleton, who has worked with Hallström twice before and has two more projects with him in the works, deserves praise — though frankly, how do you point a camera at that scenery and not get a good shot? The only time Stapleton’s work is a little obvious are in the scenes involving evil Gary: Every time Lopez has her back turned to the camera, it’s telegraphed that Gary is about to show up. Though the character adds a welcome jolt of suspense into Hallström’s touchy-feely milieu, it’s clear the director isn’t especially interested in pursuing it; most of the scenes that could build in suspense end up concluding rather quickly.
The unfinished life of the title refers to Einar’s dead son, but it could also refer to Redford, who really runs the show here. Perhaps realizing that rare performances in snoozers like The Horse Whisperer and The Last Castle weren’t doing him any favors, he seems to have entered a new phase in his career, with a wealth of old-man roles now open to him. He was very good in last year’s The Clearing; he’s better in this.