|An Unfinished Life (2005)
Starring: Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez, Morgan Freeman, Josh Lucas, Camryn Manheim, Damian Lewis, Becca Gardner
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
When Roger Ebert offered his opinion of “An Unfinished Life” upon its initial release, he observed that the typical review for the film would include three things:
• A mention of the fact that it was kept on the shelf at Miramax for two years and was finally released as part of the farewell flood of leftover product produced by the Weinstein brothers.
• An observation that Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman are trying to be Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman (in “Million Dollar Baby”).
• A lack of respect for J-Lo, mostly just because she’s J-Lo and can’t seem to please anyone lately.
In truth, the only one of those three which had even occurred to me to mention was the first one…and that’s only because “An Unfinished Life” is such a strong film that it’s hard to conceive that Miramax sat on it as long as they did, then proceeded to offer it so little in the way of promotion or widespread distribution.
Lopez plays Jean Gilkyson, a young widow who has not only a 10-year-old daughter – Griff, played by newcomer Becca Gardner – but also, unfortunately, a boyfriend who slaps her around. When Jean finally gets fed up, she makes a run for it with Griff in tow; with nowhere else to go, she turns up at the Wyoming ranch of her late husband’s father, Einar (Redford). Einar, it’s quickly determined, has never forgiven Jean for the death of his son, but he begrudgingly allows her to stay, predominantly because he’s in shock; until these two visitors turned up on his doorstep, he’d had no idea that he even had a granddaughter…not that he hasn’t had enough to keep him busy. Einar shares his space on the ranch with Mitch (Freeman); they’re friends – and just friends, despite Griff’s presumption that they’re gay (“Well, Einar,” says Mitch, barely suppressing a laugh, “I always thought that you had really nice hands”) – but they’ve also shared a doctor / patient relationship ever since Mitch fell victim to a bear mauling.
Gardner does a nice, subtle job as Griff, trying to figure out what to make of this newfound grandfather (she didn’t know he existed, either) and not knowing why her mother can’t seem to at least ask her opinion when she’s making decisions that affect both their lives. It’s the relationship with Einar and Mitch, however, that’s crucial to the film, and watching Redford and Freeman working together is like auditing Acting 101; they’re comfortable together, and if they aren’t really good friends in real life, you’d never know it from how they deliver their dialogue. (Mitch: “You know what I dreamt last night? I dreamt you weren’t such a miserable son of a bitch.” Einar: “That’s not dreaming; that’s wishful thinking.”) Mitch is a philosopher at heart, while Einar is a pessimist who’s caught up in his past and, even ten years down the line, can’t get over the fact that he’s outlived his son. Redford, who generally projects such an amiable onscreen presence, really pulls a rabbit out of his actor’s hat by portraying Einar as a bitter, pissed-off old fellow who’s grumpily mumbling to himself when he’s not outright yelling.
It’s really mystifying about why Miramax let this film gather dust, but one has to suspect that it had something to do with J-Lo being in the cast; they were probably still annoyed with her that, as a result of the backlash from her break-up with Ben Affleck, “Jersey Girl” proved to be a commercial disappointment. Lopez does a more than acceptable job as a woman who, after having been unable to find romantic happiness since her husband’s death, is finally trying to make her own way in the world, but the film’s only tangentially about her character. This is a phenomenal character study of the grief of a father and the guilt of a friend. If you find it’s unfolding too slowly for you, just focus on the wonderful performances by Redford and Freeman, and they’ll pull you through.
Sadly, none of the stars had anything to do with the disc’s commentary, but Hallstrom teams with producer Leslie Holleran (“The Shipping News”) and editor Andrew Mondshein (“Analyze That”) to speak on the creation, development, and unfolding of the film. There’s also the inevitable making-of documentary, but the featurette on the film’s animal star, Bart the Bear, offers a particularly interesting look at a beast whose role in the film is as important as any of the roles played by humans.