An Unfinished Life is your basic Lasse Hallstrom formula-film, featuring people in dire situations who are redeemed when their basic goodness comes to the fore, elevated a notch by a pair of actors displaying sides we don't often see.
That would be Robert Redford and Jennifer Lopez, playing a grizzled rancher so enveloped by bitterness that it's a wonder he can even function and an impoverished single mother struggling to overcome the bad choices she seems doomed to make.
All this is played out within a postcard-perfect Western landscape (with Canada standing in for Wyoming) that should distract audiences from concentrating on the sometimes-too-precious-for-its-own-good plot. Throw in Morgan Freeman and a 500-pound grizzly, and the result is a movie that dares you not to like it - a dare I won't be accepting.
Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules, The Shipping News) and screenwriters Mark and Virginia Skorus Spragg have come up with a morality play about the toxicity of bitterness and the wisdom of acceptance, about confronting one's demons and getting on with life the best way one knows how.
The movie centers on three relationships. The first is between rancher Einar Gilkyson (Redford) and his former daughter-in-law, Jean (Lopez), whom he stubbornly blames for causing the death of his only son. The second is between Einar and the granddaughter he never knew he had, Griff (12-year-old Becca Gardner, tentative, vulnerable but believably resilient in her screen debut). The third is between Einar's longtime friend, Mitch (Freeman), and the bear that mauled and almost killed him.
Relationship No. 1 provides the star power and No. 2 gives An Unfinished Life its heart, while the third serves as a clunky (and expendable) metaphor for all the emotional baggage the other characters have to provide.
After being struck one too many times by her current boyfriend, Jean has fled her home, with Griff in tow. Unable to decide where to go, she settles on Einar's ranch; although she knows he despises her, Jean gambles that blood will prove stronger than hate. Maybe realizing he has a granddaughter, one named after his son, will mellow the old coot.
There seems little chance of that at first; Einar lets them in, but grudgingly, with nothing even resembling grace. But gradually - and couldn't you have seen this coming? - the old guy softens, especially under the prodding of Mitch, who desperately wants his friend to lighten up.
Redford and Freeman are marvelous together, two old pros showing off for the camera and for all the young turks surrounding them in the cast. Admittedly, Freeman has done this wise buddy routine before, most recently in Million Dollar Baby (where he won as Oscar for it), but no one does it better. Yes, it would be nice to see his acting muscles stretch, but I wouldn't worry; Freeman's too good an actor, and too valued a resource in the acting community, to be restricted to one role for long. Besides, An Unfinished Life has been sitting on the shelf for more than two years, meaning it was filmed before Million Dollar Baby, so one can't accuse Freeman of consciously reprising his award-winning role.
Redford is another matter; it's nice to see him eschew glamour and revel in a role that lets him get mean and ornery and occasionally look the part. Admittedly, Einar may rely a little too much on Redford's previous personae; for an old guy, he's still pretty tough, not to mention virtuous (at least when he's not dealing with Jean). But Redford's earned the right to play off his icon status, and the results here are both invigorating and appealing.
Lopez, too, tries to shake off the glamour image, and succeeds far better than in light comedies like Maid in Manhattan, where the results have seemed too calculated and self-conscious. She stumbles a bit in her big scenes with Redford, unable to trump his grizzled indifference with her desperate passion (which is what the scene calls for), but otherwise holds her own among far more established company.
An Unfinished Life maybe tries to do too much, especially in a subplot that bends backward to help Mitch finally stare down that bear. But its theme of bravery and resilience in the face of terrible, life-altering tragedy plays to its audiences' better natures, tugging on heartstrings without beating on them mercilessly.
Starring Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez, Morgan Freeman
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom
Released by Miramax Films
Time 107 minutes
SUN SCORE: *** ( 3 STARS )