Finally weary of her abusive boyfriend, Jean (a nicely composed Jennifer Lopez) takes her daughter Griff (Becca Gardner) out of their dead-end life in Iowa and travels to Wyoming, to see her estranged ex-father-in-law, Einar (Robert Redford). Still enraged over the loss of his beloved son, as well as tending daily to the bear-attack wounds of his friend (Morgan Freeman), Einar isn't interested in Jean's reemergence in his life. However, Einar warms to Griff, and through her begins to confront the anguish in his life, forcing himself to recognize his anger and absolve Jean's guilt.
Passing as leisurely as the Wyoming life it depicts, "An Unfinished Life" (IMDb listing) deals with very urgent themes in a not-terribly-urgent way.
Director Lasse Hallstrom is a filmmaker who has built a filmography out of milquetoast dramas that either score ("The Cider House Rules") or sink ("Chocolat") by the determination of their story. "Unfinished Life" plays directly to Hallstrom's strengths as a Miramax Oscar-baiting stooge: a picturesque setting, melodrama in every corner, and a top-notch cast that isn't really challenged. "Life" is a recognizable package for Hallstrom, but one that he directs calmly, providing enough substance for the audience to sink its teeth into. Just don't go into the theater expecting emotional fireworks.
The themes of unattended grief and emotional escape are juicy ones that "Life" toys with constantly. The screenplay arranges the characters in thickly drawn ways, but manages to keep their purposes alive for the whole show, even when the story takes some odd turns. Every character has their backstory, and Hallstrom dotes on them all, which often gums up the pace of the film. His tendency toward melodrama is where Hallstrom hurts the film the most, insisting on cartoon realizations of domestic abuse in Jean's story and clumsy symbolism in the bear attack, constantly trying to reach for broader audience-pleasing moments that are undeserved. "Life" is a much stronger picture sitting back and letting the characters work out frustrations in their own unique ways. When Hallstrom indulges himself and starts forcing the scenes, they crumble in his hands.
While only working every blue moon, Robert Redford is always welcome on the silver screen. "Life" passes the actor a more challenging script than what he's been receiving lately, playing directly toward Redford's penchant for insular performances. Since the film hardly rages, Redford fits nicely with the small-town vibe of "Life," delivering a performance that is a dynamite combination of angry, bitter muttering and slowly melting ice. Already a cozy acting presence, Redford matches well with the always affable Morgan Freeman, and the two share such critical, welcome chemistry that it makes the rest of the movie seem like a chore when the focus isn't on these two terrific actors.
Because "Life" has difficulty keeping the audience interested in the various stories unfolding, it's hard to give an enthusiastic recommendation. However, because the mood of the film is so richly realized, and the performances uniformly strong, there's enough to get excited about in "Unfinished Life" to make for a worthwhile sit.
Filmfodder Grade: B