Lasse Hallstrom never met a case of advanced emotional constipation he couldn’t unplug in two psychobabbly hours or less, and his latest seriocomic slice of wry, An Unfinished Life, marches its characters toward expulsive redemption with a predictability that’s almost impressive. Suffice it to say that little goes unfinished here, much less unsaid or unacknowledged.
The issue at hand is what’s eating Einar Gilkyson (Robert Redford), a Wyoming rancher who’s become cynical and withdrawn since the death of his grown son in a car accident. His estranged daughter-in-law, Jean (Jennifer Lopez), is evading a demon of her own (Damian Lewis as a deus ex-girlfriend-beater) and flees to Einar’s ranch with her pre-adolescent daughter (Becca Gardner)—the granddaughter Einar didn’t know he had—in tow. Sparks fly because the elder Gilkyson blames Jean for his boy’s demise (she was at the wheel of the death car), but he’s equally burdened by guilt over the earlier bear-mauling of his live-in friend and ranch hand Mitch (Morgan Freeman). A hunky town cop (Josh Lucas) and said grizzly hang around to provide local color.
There’s an appealing literary quality to all of Unfinished‘s key tragedies having occurred prior to the start of the movie, and its bleak north-country setting serves the story well (although the British
Columbia–as-Wyoming locations are rather statically shot by DP Oliver Stapleton). The mournful, shell-shocked tone these elements supply, however, is fully squandered by too tidy plotting and a lugubriously foregone resolution; unassuaged filial grief may be anathema to Hollywood, but a film like Phil Morrison’s sly, devastating Junebug reveals how much more of a wallop it packs than the Hallmark Channel palliatives at play here.
Hallstrom’s light touch somewhat mitigates the stultifying sentimentality, as do the occasional zingers in Mark Spragg and Virginia Korus Spragg’s screenplay (the subject of Einar and Mitch’s apparent couplehood is even wittily broached). But as with the director’s other films, all that keeps Unfinished from being a complete, treacly bore is its robust performances. Redford seems more energized than he’s been in a while, and though it’s a leap to imagine the Sultan of Sundance as any town’s coot, he obviously relishes the opportunity to play more or less against type. For her part, J.Lo manages to remain generally unobtrusive, and Camryn Manheim nicely underplays a small role as Jean’s waitressing buddy.
And then there’s Morgan Freeman, who’s left to play yet another wise black mascot who totes the bulk of the film’s metaphorical baggage and ushers yet another stubborn white wretch into self-actualization. Mitch gets little in return for his trouble besides three hots, a cot, and a daily painkiller shot, and most of his screen time is spent in bed; hell, even the bear has better scenes. The reasons for Freeman’s woeful typecasting are many and depressing, I’m sure, but really—would it have been so inconceivable to cast him as this movie’s lead?