A lot can happen to a film on the road to Oscar, and most of it not good. Usually, the critics (and most of the movie-going public) can spot an Oscar grab from a mile away. So much of how a critic responds to a film has to do with expectations. If a movie comes out of nowhere and the critic “discovers” it, most of the time, raves will abound, as was witnessed by two films last year, Million Dollar Baby and Sideways. Films that are Oscar-bound from the get-go have a much harder time and are always always always judged more harshly. This is as good a reason any as to why the critics savaged An Unfinished Life.
Directed by Miramax darling Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat), the film seemed like it was put together just to win a clutch of Oscars. But fate intervened. In the middle of the recent shakeup at Miramax, (the Weinstein brothers fired from their own company) two movies were shelved. One was Proof, currently making the film festival rounds, and the other was An Unfinished Life, known for being a tour de force of Oscar-like acting from Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman and Jennifer Lopez. It already had everything stacked against it before it was even taken off the shelf. And the truth is, it isn’t bad at all.
Robert Redford plays a haggard, old, tough guy, Einar Gilkyson who’s never gotten over the death of his son Griff. He’s caring for his longtime friend Mitch (Freeman) who was mauled and left bed-ridden by a neighboring grizzly bear. One day, in walks his widowed daughter-in-law Jean (Lopez) and her 11 year-old daughter (Becca Gardener) on the run from her abusive boyfriend.
“I don’t want you around here,” he says to her upon sight. “Well that makes two of us,” she says back to him. When he finds out the plain looking little girl standing with her mother is his granddaughter, the offspring of his dead son, Einar squirrels up enough compassion to let them stay long enough for Jean to get a job, raise some money, and find them a permanent home.
This isn’t a big movie that solves big problems – it is a simple story that works on solving the problems of a few people. Oh, and a grizzly bear. Probably if they’d left the bear out of the story the critics might have treated the film with some mercy, since the only film ever made that features a grizzly bear and remains brilliantly intact is this year’s Grizzly Man. Every other time they appear in movies, they instantly make the film unbelievable. However, in this case, the bear is essential to the plot – Mitch was mauled by a bear, an attack which could have been prevented had Einar been there to protect him.
What An Unfinished Life is really about is guilt. How it seeps into our bone marrow and prevents us from moving forward with our lives. Einar’s guilt is what eats him up from the inside out and makes him continually blame others for his lot in life. It can’t be him; it must be them.
Some of the more moving scenes in the film occur when Einar sits by his son’s grave, which reads “An Unfinished Life” on the tombstone. It is in these quiet moments that Redford reveals a side of himself rarely seen – a tender vulnerability, even if he does still cling to those annoying filters to make himself look prettier (he really needs to let himself be old on camera).
Morgan Freeman is once again playing the supportive, enlightened alter ego of some stubborn old fool, much like the character he won the Oscar for in Million Dollar Baby – existing really only to make the other guy look good. Nonetheless, it is always a pleasure to dwell in Freeman’s world – his buttery smooth voice, his soulful eyes.
And finally, Jennifer Lopez is not a bad actress – she is, however, a bit too fabulous to play in films like this. Her real life persona overshadows her character even though she’s a better actress than most at doing what she does. She’s certainly as good as Julia Roberts. But she is just too fabulous – it’s those perfect cheekbones, the subtle way the lip gloss stays on her lips, not too much, not too little – how gorgeous she looks in clothes. She’s Raquel Welch, not Jane Fonda. She needs to ugly herself up somehow and then people might begin to notice her acting.An Unfinished Life is an expertly, nicely written screenplay by Mark Spragg and Virginia Korus Spragg, a fulfilling story with memorable characters and an uplifting ending. There are worse things a person could do for an hour and forty minutes than see it.