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Overall Rating
3.15

Awesome: 6.06%
Worth A Look45.45%
Average: 27.27%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 21.21%

4 reviews, 9 user ratings


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Unfinished Life, An
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Redford and J-Lo and Bears-oh my!"
1 stars

Shot in 2003, originally scheduled for release in 2004 (when it once bandied about as a sure thing for various end-of-year awards) and now being dumped into an early-September dead zone by Miramax as one the last gasps of their expiring distribution deal with Disney, “A Unfinished Life” feels less like an authentic movie and more like a straight-faced parody of the Oscar bait that it was once clearly designed to be. Filled with turgid melodrama, ill-cast stars desperately trying to show off their acting chops and the kind of heavy-handed symbolism that is rarely seen outside of Creative Writing 101 assignments, a film that should have been a sure thing quickly devolves into the kind of dreary dog about which the nicest thing one can say is that it isn’t quite as dreadful as “Proof.”

Robert Redford stars as Einar Gilkyson (a character name that would sound plausible only in a film from the Coen Brothers), an embittered old man who lives on an isolated spread of land in Wyoming (played here by Canada) and who spends his days struggling to stay off the bottle, tending to the injuries of Mitch (Morgan Freeman), a longtime friend who was gravely wounded a year earlier after being attacked by a bear and mourning the death of his beloved son in a car crash a decade earlier. His daily routine of giving Mitch morphine and delivering long graveside monologues is upset when Jean (Jennifer Lopez), his former daughter-in-law, shows up on his doorstep, along with heretofore unknown granddaughter Griff (Becca Gardner), in desperate need of a place to stay after fleeing an abusive boyfriend (Damian Lewis). Since Einar holds Jean completely responsible for his son’s death, he is not exactly eager to see her but he nevertheless allows them to stay–most likely because he knows that if he doesn’t, the cycle of healing will never begin, tearful reconciliations won’t occur and audiences might start to check their watches to see when the next showing of “The Constant Gardener” begins.

Before long, the predictable routines of the characters are replaced by entirely new predictable routines. Einar is initially gruff with the interlopers but Griff (named after his son and her father) begins to bring him out of his shell. Jean gets a job at a local restaurant–run by “down-home” Camryn Mannheim–and jumps the bones of the local sheriff (Josh Lucas) once they realize that they are the only attractive people in town of a certain demographic age. Because all of these breakthroughs occur in the first hour, a number of conflicts are dragged into the second half to pad things out. Einar once again lashes out at Jean over the accident and when she leaves, Griff chooses to stay with her grandfather. The evil boyfriend somehow tracks Jean down and both Einar and the sheriff try to deal with it without letting on anything to Jean. Most ridiculously, the bear that mauled Mitch is caught and is inexplicably turned into an attraction at a cheesy roadside menagerie–since Mitch evidently read the Cliffs Notes, he realizes that the bear is supposed to be a Symbol and asks Einar to feed it and later to free it.

Looking at the material, I can understand why all of the people involved with “An Unfinished Life” signed up for the project in the first place. For Lasse Hallstrom, the once-interesting director (“My Life as a Dog” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”) who has become Miramax’s go-to guy for their pseudo-literary Oscar bait (“The Cider House Rules,” “Chocolat” and “The Shipping News”) and Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the once-interesting heads of Miramax, it once again provides them with a chance to work on a project with high-profile actors and the kind of subject matter (abusive relationships, coming to terms with the past and rassling bears) that generally winds up winning big at awards season. For Redford, it gives him a chance at a showy role that would allow him to finally pick up an Oscar nod for acting. For Freeman, it gives him the kind of colorful-sage supporting role that could easily earn him his first Oscar as well. (Bear in mind that he shot this film long before “Million Dollar Baby”). For Lopez, it gives her a chance to work with the big boys and prove herself as an actress. As for Lucas and Lewis, it provides showcase parts for two good actors who haven’t quite had their breakthroughs yet.

The problem with “An Unfinished Life” is that there is never the sense that it has been created for any other reason than to earn Oscar nominations for its participants and as anyone who has sat through the likes of “Nell” or “The Shipping News” can attest, a film designed to be nothing more than Oscar bait can be excruciating to sit through. In fact, the film plays less like a narrative and more like a collection of clips ready-made to play as the nominees are announced during the awards. Everyone gets a big dramatic scene or two–even the seemingly superfluous restaurant owner gets to deliver an out-of-nowhere monologue about her dead kid–but none of them ever get a single moment in which they are allowed to come across as genuine human beings. Even Morgan Freeman, an actor who has the voice and presence to make even the most ridiculous of statements (such as the narration for that damn penguin movie) sound utterly authentic, is unable to overcome the silliness that he is forced to endure here–which starts with the wounds on his face and back that never look like anything other than cheesy make-up appliances and ends with his utterly preposterous final confrontation with the bear. (This is a scene that might have worked a little bit better if it had come out two years ago instead of a few weeks after Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man.”

And if Freeman can’t pull it out of the bag, the other actors have no shot. Redford tries and tries to do the crusty old man routine but it just looks ridiculous coming from him–he always looks as if he is ready to jet back to Sundance the minute that they say “Cut!” And while I have never quite found myself reaching the levels of hatred towards Jennifer Lopez’s acting that others have–she was excellent in “Out of Sight” all those years ago and I also thought she was kind of appealing in her brief appearance in “Jersey Girl”–I didn’t buy her for a second as an estranged daughter-in-law, an abused woman (though I liked how she color-coordinated with her single bruise) or even as the mother of a ten-year-old (every scene between her and Gardner feels as if they had just met three seconds before shooting); in fairness to her, the role is so inconsistently written that it is impossible to think of anyone who could have pulled it off. As for Lucas and Lewis, they appear and disappear so arbitrarily that I get the sense that most of their respective performances got left behind on the cutting-room floor. Frankly, the best performance in the film is turned in by Bart the Bear and I suspect that even he may have wished that he had been given script approval before shooting that ludicrous final scene with Freeman.

“An Unfinished Life” is more than just a mess–it is a boring mess that doesn’t even provide the kind of giddy “what-were-they-thinking?” merriment that can be had when something meant to be Profound and Important goes horribly wrong. The sad thing is that it doesn’t even seem to be one of those good ideas that suffered from poor execution; the only thing that could have save the project is if someone–anyone–had just admitted that the entire thing was a mess from the start and had just stopped everything early on before it spiraled further out of control. They didn’t and the result is a work designed to be award bait and destined to be ignored by everyone–even the people behind the Razzies will find it too dull and turgid to be worthy of consideration.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=13056&reviewer=389
originally posted: 09/09/05 14:03:26
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User Comments

6/20/08 PAUL SHORTT IT TAKES MORE THAN SOME STARS AND PLOT POINTS TO MAKE A SUCCESSFUL FILM 1 stars
4/20/08 R.W. Welch Outdoorsy opus is slow in spots but has some good bits. C+ 3 stars
3/24/07 Oksana I love the story and I love you, Mr. Redford.Superb!!! Good soundtrack! Perfect script! 5 stars
12/18/06 Phil M. Aficionado P. Bryant stole my review (see his). I could have created this film; not a good thing. 3 stars
9/07/06 JH Easily worth watching. 4 stars
6/26/06 Jack Sommersby Superbly acted, touching, and entertaining from start to finish. 4 stars
6/15/06 Danny Some of the reviewers are too hard on it. I thought it was a good movie 4 stars
2/12/06 Indrid Cold A laid-back, homespun, well-crafted drama ... yes, it's pretty boring. 3 stars
1/22/06 Donatella Fedrighini I LOVED the story and I LOVED M. Freeman. R. R. is a man I'd like to meet 5 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  09-Sep-2005 (PG-13)
  DVD: 11-Apr-2006

UK
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