Volume 75, Number 15 | Aug. 31 - Sep 06, 2005

Film

AN UNFINISHED LIFE
Opens Sept. 9
Citywide

Photo courtesy of Doane Gregory

Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez and Morgan Freeman in Lasse Hallstrom’s “An Unfinished Life.”

Innocence wears well

Film stars Jennifer Lopez, Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman

By Jerry Tallmer

Lillian Hellman, who titled her 1969 autobiographical memoir “An Unfinished Woman,” would have turned up her nose at the movie called “An Unfinished Life” that’s opening September 9. Too innocent for tough-talking no-nonsense playwright Hellman.

And that’s what’s nice about it, its innocence, a rare enough DNA in movies — above all, in the bloated, mechanized, dehumanized billion-dollar Hollywood insults of this era.

“An Unfinished Life” revolves wholly around innocence, be it that of Griff, the fatherless, watchful 11-year-old girlchild at its center (actually a 13-year-old find named Becca Gardner); or Griff’s sleep-around runaway mother (the gossip world’s Jennifer Lopez, with admirable control and a beautifully painted bruise on her right jaw); or the big bad coppertoned grizzly bear that prowls around the periphery of the picture until clapped into a sideshow cage like a detainee at Guantanamo; or big bad Einar, a human grizzly (Robert Redford), the kid’s embittered old grandfather, who hates her mother – his daughter-in-law – for killing his only son, Griff’s dad, by falling asleep at the wheel one night; or Mitch (Morgan Freeman), old Einar’s longtime hired hand and one and only friend for 40 years.

Some years ago the aforementioned bear had mauled Mitch, half killed him, left him a scar-faced cripple for life. “That’s what bears do,” says Mitch. “I want him set free.” Mitch is also a diabetic. Every morning Einar brings him his coffee and then shoots a needleful of insulin into his cranky old buddy’s backside to keep him alive.

Wide-eyed, silent Griff, the granddaughter to whom Einar has not yet given the time of day, feels the need to say something, make conversation, fill in the void, break the silence. “I had a music teacher who was a lesbian,” the 11-year-old remarks. And then, matter of factly, looking from her grandfather to Mitch to nowhere: “You guys are gay, right?”

Wrong. But, it’s a very sweet moment, innocence enthroned atop innocence. “Don’t bears like honey?” the girl says. “Winnie-the-Pooh does.”

“How old is she?” Mitch asks. “She still believes everything’s going to turn out all right, and that’s a good age,” Einar replies. Next thing you know, Grizzly Old Grandpa stops brooding over his son’s rough-hewn tombstone up in the hills, and also stops grilling his daughter-in-law with questions like: “Are you screwing Crane Curtis [the local sheriff] for protection or sport?”

Einar’s own sport, or necessity, will be to set that bear free, toward which end he — with unaccustomed patience — teaches young Griff, whose help he will need, how to drive a pickup truck. The setting free of the bear terminates, of course, in comic – that is to say, innocent – disaster.

The grouchy old man / innocent youngster tandem goes back in movies past John Wayne and W.C. Fields and Michel Simon (“The Two of Us”) and a hundred others, all the way to Chaplin, and no doubt even before him. It’s sure-fire stuff, but not usually, in films made by Americans, as subtly-smoothly as in the script here by novelist Mark Spragg and his wife Virginia Korus Sprague.

Among the producers of this Miramax / Revolution Studios entry are Harvey and Bob Weinstein, in what may be seen as their Miramax swan song. Two other producers are Alan Ladd, Jr., and Kellian Ladd, husband and wife. The director they chose, and they chose well, was Lasse Hallstrom. He is Swedish, the story is set in Wyoming, it was shot in British Columbia. Makes no difference. Like Hallstrom’s lovely “My Life as a Dog,” another parable of youthful innocence, it could have been set and shot almost anywhere.

The fun, the charm, has a lot to do with seeing that J-Lo can really act, and that Robert Redford, older, heavier, beakier (thanks in part to makeup), and more disagreeable than in anything since, perhaps, “The Way We Were” (1973), is fully as interesting, if not more so, than the beautiful golden Robert Redford we all grew up with during these past 40 years – the same span of time as Einar and Mitch’s friendship.

It wears well. He wears well. And keep your eye on Becca Gardner. Which is almost impossible not to do.

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