Somewhere in Wyoming, Einar Gilkyson (Robert Redford) is tending dutifully to his ranch, which seems unkempt and undermanned. Also dutifully, he tends to Mitch (Morgan Freeman), the hired hand who has been working the ranch with Einar for decades. Mitch has recently been mauled by a bear and is all but completely crippled. Life is a daily struggle.
Somewhere in Iowa, a different kind of struggle is taking place. Jean Gilkyson's (Jennifer Lopez) boyfriend Gary (Damian Lewis) beats on her, while her daughter, Griff (Becca Gardner), watches. "You promised this would be the last time," the girl says, once Gary has left. Those words are the impetus for a move that will reunite a fractured family and, we hope, heal wounds that have destroyed countless lives across several generations -- and so on, and so forth. You know where this is headed.
The basic plot elements of An Unfinished Life bear striking resemblance to every movie of the week you've ever watched on television. It highlights the horror of intimate partner violence, the difficulties of being a single mother, the resentment of having been spurned by your family and the unending grief of losing a child. I think I've touched on them all, but if you can think of another catharsis-whoring television movie clich & eacute;, please e-mail me.
So it plays like the archetype for TV movies (even having a love-hate relationship with bears isn't new), but that alone isn't enough to sink a film completely. You can make a perfectly wonderful movie with the tackiest and most rehashed plot. No one knows that better than Lasse Hallstr & ouml;m, who has essentially made a career out of it. Of his films -- which include What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, The Shipping News, The Cider House Rules, and Something To Talk About -- only Chocolat had anything near an original plot. They were all about people with problems coming to understand other people with problems, the situations were just switched.
These kinds of films, at their best, (Chocolat and What's Eating Gilbert Grape, in this list) feel achingly like real life. That's due in part to the fact that, you know, the plots are nothing remarkable, almost like the plots of real lives. At their worst (Something To Talk About), though, the formula is reduced to its schmaltzier elements, with unimaginative writing and lackluster dramatic performances. It's a tough win, really, because there's no plot to bail the audience out, leaving all our attention poised on characterization and acting.
Unfortunately, An Unfinished Life misses these marks more often than it hits. Redford and Freeman create a real camaraderie between their characters, and Redford is good stumbling toward love for his granddaughter and toward acceptance of his son's early death. Camryn Manheim, despite having few lines, hints at a deep history with all the people of her small town. Young Becca Gardner has flashes of charisma. If the film had been filled with these kinds of performances, it would have been enough to elevate it.
It's only about half full, though. Griff's frustration with her mother (Lopez) is never convincing, nor is the relationship between Lopez and the sheriff, nor the one between Lopez and Redford. Basically, Jennifer Lopez isn't very good. Given a character who is little more than a sketch to begin with, she delivers her lines half-heartedly, with very little visible concern about her circumstances, very little love for her daughter and very little believable anger at her father-in-law.
She is, however, very good when paired with Damian Lewis. Together they bring the dynamics of spousal abuse to life beautifully and tragically. In the end, though, it's too little. Jean Gilkyson needed a consistent and compelling performance to elevate her story above the material, and Lopez doesn't work that kind of magic.
To be fair, most scenes don't give her much to work with. At a point when Lopez's character is beginning to settle in and win Einar over with her hard work and determination, she accidentally breaks a plate. Einar, in turn, explodes, ranting about how some things are irreplaceable. The scene obviously is meant to hint at deeper issues -- but Einar, buddy, it's just a plate. As a screenwriter, you have to know what kinds of broken kitchenware can believably set a person off.
All told, An Unfinished Life comes close to being a good film. There are several excellent scenes and a handful of really solid performances, but in a film completely driven by its characters, that's not nearly enough.
An Unfinished Life; Rated: PG-13; Directed by Lasse Hallstrom; Starring Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez, Damian Lewis, Morgan Freeman.