Despite the title, this new release from director Lasse Hallstrom has actually been finished for a long while–it’s been sitting on the shelf at Miramax since 2003. “An Unfinished Life” is also more than a bit musty in narrative terms. It’s an extremely old-fashioned story that comes across as a starrily-cast, determinedly middlebrow Hallmark Hall of Fame special, a tale of the redemption not just of a single damaged person, but of several. The script, based on a novel by co-screenwriter Mark Spragg, has the sort of overly schematic structure and heavy-handed literary symbolism that can work on the printed page but seems contrived when transferred to the screen. Since the picture is blessed with an impressive roster of in-front-of-the-camera talent and some lovely western locations (captured in genteel widescreen images by Oliver Stapleton), it isn’t hard to watch, but the leisurely pacing gives the obvious dramatic twists a decidedly familiar feel.
The plot begins with the flight of Jean Gilkyson (Jennifer Lopez), the battered live-in girlfriend of an explosive brute named Gary (Damian Lewis). Fleeing him with her eleven-year old daughter Griff (Becca Gardner) in tow, she reluctantly makes her way to the isolated Wyoming ranch of her father-in-law Einar Gilkyson (Robert Redford), from whom she’s been estranged since the death of her husband in a car crash twelve years earlier. Einer blames Jean, who was driving, for the loss of his beloved son, and he’s continued to mourn so single-mindedly that he’s become an embittered old man; when Jean and Griff, the grandchild he doesn’t even know he had, arrive on his doorstep asking for temporary refuge, he’s initially dismissive, but reluctantly agrees to shelter them. But Einer’s not alone on his spread: there’s also Mitch (Morgan Freeman), his long-time hand, who’s now a scarred invalid, having been mauled by a bear a year earlier. Einer and Mitch are a sort of rustic odd couple, constantly bickering. But of course there’s a deep fraternal bond between them, demonstrated not only by the care that Einer showers on his friend (who has to be injected with morphine every day to dull the pain), but by his determination to deal with the bear that had injured Mitch. Unfortunately, his attempt to shoot the animal is interrupted by Sheriff Crane (Josh Lucas), who instead has the beast sedated and transported to a local zoo. The only other character of note is Nina (Camryn Manheim), the owner of the local diner who gives Jean a job as a waitress and–at one of those predictably charged moments–reveals her own story of sad loss.
As is clear from its insistent harping on a single theme, this is a story of coping, of coming to terms with the past, of liberating oneself from paralyzing grief. The trajectory is inevitable. The emotionally hardened Einer will eventually succumb to young Griff’s charms and accept mother and daughter as family. He’ll also become their protector when Gary makes his obligatory appearance, allowing for some of the western heroics that hearken back to Redford’s cinematic past. Jean will stop punishing herself over her husband’s death, eventually taking up with the good-natured sheriff. And Mitch will encapsulate it all by asking that the bear be freed to go back into the mountains; after all, he was only doing what bears do and can’t be blamed for that. The lesson, of course, is that you have to forgive others–and yourself. (One half-expects that by the close Einer’s wife, who left him because of his sullenness, might show up, too.)
That’s a nice moral, but it’s one that’s been taught by plenty of movies before, and more effectively than it is here. There’s a sense of calculation about “An Unfinished Life” that becomes achingly obvious after awhile–even the title refers to every character one encounters. And the actors can’t make it seem fresh. Redford works hard at playing a grizzled, tormented old coot, but he seems to be doing a not very good impression of the Clint Eastwood of “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby,” and the unfavorable comparison is accentuated by the presence of Freeman, who’s once again the epitome of injured but still dignified nobility. (No one does that stereotype better, but it’s still a stereotype.) Lopez, of course, isn’t in the same league, barely getting by in this company. But Lewis brings a touch of real menace to the mood-swinging Gary (though not nearly as effectively as Lucas, with little to do here but smile, did in “Undertow”), and young Gardner is nicely understated as Griff–a role that could easily have slipped into cuteness. (She even pulls off what might be the picture’s best scene–one of its rare forays into humor–when she voices the erroneous notion that Einer and Mitch are gay.)
Older audiences will probably feel comfortable with “An Unfinished Life,” which lays out its ultimately uplifting message in a fashion reminiscent of domestic dramas of a bygone era. The problem is that in the final analysis the picture’s narrative path is too cut-and-dried, and Hallstrom leads us along it at an excessively lethargic tread, especially when Christopher Young’s score–one of those quietly heart-tugging affairs–is ladled so abundantly over the action. This is one of those films that might actually be improved by commercial breaks, so you might just wait for the inevitable network broadcast.