In his review of Lasse Hallström's An Unfinished Life, film critic Luke Y. Thompson notes of the Sundance "Kid": "[Robert] Redford has spent a decade or two pretending he's still a young man on-screen, but here he finally gives it up." Thompson's chosen to ignore that Redford's senior character, a grizzled recluse who cultivates stubble and growls at the world, still takes time to dye his hair blonde.
Okay, Redford had me going for a while, too. But An Unfinished Life squanders finely developed exposition on a movie that turns out to be tailor-made for folks whose idea of literature is Reader's Digest. Hallström makes small details great ones in his first act (penned by Mark Spragg & Virginia Korus Spragg), allowing information to unfold at a lifelike pace. Once the cards are on the table, however, the fun's over as we wait for the inescapable melodrama to punch the clock.
Redford plays Einar Gilkyson—cranky, dry-alcoholic father-in-law to Jennifer Lopez's single-mom Jean. The only thing Einar and Jean have in common is that they agree Jean is responsible for the death of his son, her ex-husband. But when Jean's boyfriend (Damian Lewis) slaps her around one time too many, she doesn't know where else to turn but Einar's sky-country ranch. There, a grand-daughter (Becca Gardner) will finally meet her grandfather, and old wounds will reopen before they can heal for good.
Redford's longtime companion on the ranch is a horribly scarred cowpoke named Mitch Bradley (Morgan Freeman), but they're not gay. The Spraggs take pains to note Einar's lost love (and allow vague flirtation between Einar and a waitress played by Camryn Mannheim), but conspicuously fail to mention Mitch ever having had a love life. Why bother? His character exists to massage Redford's hero back to emotional life (it's time for Freeman to just say "no" to these "Bagger Vance" roles); Mitch's issue is incidental in the extreme, not to mention ridiculous.
Mitch's scars resulted from a tangle with a bear (played by second-generation celebrity-grizzly "Bart the Bear"), but he wishes the bear no ill will for following its nature. Rather, the saintly Mitch wants Einar to feed the bear and, ultimately, free it. Since An Unfinished Life has gathered a bit of dust on the Miramax shelf, Hallström has the misfortune of following Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man. What would Herzog say about Hallström's "Bear Whisperer" nonsense? When he stopped laughing at the use of the bear as a metaphor for bottled-up bad feelings that must be liberated, he might point out that bears don't stand on their hind legs to threaten prey—that's a load of bullcrap Hollywood (by way of Bart's trainers) insists on perpetuating.
An Unfinished Life at least provides a useful contrast to good dramas, like last year's underlooked The Door in the Floor. Compare Jeff Bridges's climactic powerhouse monologue in that film to Lopez's similarly constructed but thuddingly dull hysterics at the climax of An Unfinished Life. Follow the thought further, and you'll realize that the core characters in The Door in the Floor had horrifying emotional problems, while every character in An Unfinished Life has a dopey sob story (including Mannheim and Josh Lucas as an unaccountably inept sheriff/boyfriend to Jean).
British Columbia (in the role of Wyoming) provides a stunning backdrop for this codswallop, but it's codswallop all the same. "There was a reason for everything," Freeman reassures us at picture's end, as Hallström pans over to a postcard view. But the existence of An Unfinished Life could've fooled me. Redford and Freeman should have invested their chops elsewhere.