The film sat on the shelf for two years, which, contrary to rumor, was not done to allow extra time for Robert Redford's face to weather. After all, he finally allows himself to play someone his own age, which, for those keeping score, is 68. Here he plays Einar Gilkyson, a Wyoming rancher living an emotionally secluded life since the loss of his son in a traffic accident. Every day, Einar climbs a hill to his son's grave and informs him of the day's events. On this day, the big event is the return of his daughter-in-law Jean (Jennifer Lopez), carrying a bag of clothes and the granddaughter he never knew he had. Jean, whom Einar blames for his son's death, is on the run from an abusive boyfriend whom Einar will soon beat the tar out of so the audience can see he's forgiven her. Initially, however, he is loath to accommodate Jean and his newly discovered granddaughter Griff (Becca Gardner). But he gives them a room, allowing Jean time to get back on her feet and find a job at the local diner. Eventually, and try to hide your surprise, Einar will soften ever so slightly and learn about a little thing we like to call forgiveness.
The aforementioned heavy-handed symbolism is a reference to a bear (played by Bart, the Brando of bears) who mauled Einar's best friend, an ex-ranch hand named Mitch (Morgan Freeman, in wise, old sage mode). Einar feels responsible for the mauling, so he cares for Mitch, making his lunch and injecting him with morphine. The bear, who may as well be wearing a sign reading "I am symbolic of Regret," lumbers around town reminding the audience that this is one of them smart movies where a bear is more than just a bear.
"An Unfinished Life" is delicately observed, but what it's observing requires more conviction and less calculation. Indeed, Miramax has become the Wal-Mart of the emotionally pre-digested film. And Hallstrom is its most comforting and compliant greeter. The career of this Swedish-born director started out so strongly, with "My Life as a Dog" and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape." But he soon slipped into slick, safe, emotional constructs like "Cider House Rules," "Chocolat" and "The Shipping News." In "An Unfinished Life" he splits the difference. There are some nice moments where the film almost strays outside its safe zone, but the Miramax checklist must be filled.
It's always a pleasure to see Robert Redford on the bigscreen, but he's an unconvincing curmudgeon, making one wish he'd go back to acting half his age. Like Freeman, he can't find actorly wiggle room within the tight constraints of the formula arc. Regarding Lopez, if she stopped worrying about her foundation and lipstick and started worrying about her character, she might have regained some acting cred, especially here, opposite a distinguished cast. The freshest performance is by Becca Gardner, whose pre-pubescent Brenda Vaccaro voice is wonderfully counter to the child-actor mannerisms we usually endure. Note to filmmakers: if Dakota Fanning is not available, check on Becca Gardner. She single-handedly brings the movie to life, and even Redford and Freeman seem to realize that, loosening up whenever she's around.
"An Unfinished Life" buffs out the untidiness and unpredictability of life, rendering them tidy and predictable. Now that Bob and Harvey Weinstein are leaving Disney behind, let's hope they leave the buffing machine behind as well. Starring Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez and Morgan Freeman. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Written by Mark Spragg and Virginia Korus Spragg. Produced Leslie Holleran, Kellian Ladd and Alan Ladd Jr. A Miramax release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for some violence including domestic abuse and language. Running time: 108 min