“An Unfinished Life” just might be the first movie ever to wear the label “mournfully cute.”
A pall of grief and unresolved guilt hangs over this ranch country drama set in modern Wyoming. But the Swedish sentimentalist Lasse Hallstrom (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”), working from a script with few surprises, reaches for the treacle, and too often finds it.
It’s cute how Robert Redford, playing Einar, a grizzled old rancher, dotes on his crippled ranchhand Mitch, played by Morgan Freeman.
It’s cute how Einar mutters to himself, his critters and the ancient Mercury pick-up he spends half his time working on.
There’s a dangerous grizzly wandering the hills and into town, but he rarely looks anything but cute. Mitch was mauled by him, but Mitch insists that Einar let him live, and that he feed him after he’s captured. Cute.
Hallstrom’s characters are supposed to be walking wounded. But Redford, who is not willing to let himself show his age the way Clint Eastwood does, rarely misses the chance to go for the laugh.
Jennifer Lopez is Sue Jean, an abused woman on the run from a boyfriend who beats her up. She has her 11-year-old daughter (Becca Gardner) in tow. And she can’t get far enough away from Iowa to suit her.
Her car breaks down, and the money runs out. They have to take refuge with a man Jean hasn’t spoken to in years – her ex-father-in-law, Einar. You’d think he’d be delighted to get to know a granddaughter he didn’t know he had.
But Einar is a bitter old wreck living in a ruin of a ranch. He’s been unpleasant ever since his son, Jean’s husband, died. He blames her for the death. And naming the girl after her rodeo-cowboy dad, Griff, didn’t help.
Jean, who grew up there, is damaged goods, and certainly more “sophisticated” than poor Sheriff Curtis (Josh Lucas) remembers, as she puts the moves on him.
The story’s arc is the same as a dozen other “abused woman on the run” dramas. But Lopez, who covered similar ground in the abused-female revenge fantasy “Enough,” is at home with the material and gives a warm and uncluttered performance. There must have been more “wrong” with this character at some stage in the script, but she’s sanitized a bit for the movie. Pity. And although Lopez doesn’t seem to fret as much over appearance in this, she could still use let-it-all-hang-out lessons from co-star Camryn Manheim, as the owner of the diner where Jean goes to work.
Freeman does his wizened sidekick shtick (at least he doesn’t narrate this).
And Gardner, a big-screen newcomer, is refreshingly natural, a confused kid groping for stability, her history, for some man in her life who doesn’t scare her to death.
But the script, for all its attempted adorable moments, lacks warmth or emotion. We should feel what the characters feel for the son/husband/father who isn’t there, for the lives lost or, as the title suggests, left “unfinished.”
And we don’t. That makes whatever ending is cobbled together, and several abrupt mid-section moments, feel more contrived than organic.
In “An Unfinished Life,” it’s the movie that feels incomplete.
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