Lasse Hallstrom's “An Unfinished Life” is a lavishly cast, somewhat meandering tale of buried pain and unresolved grief. More interestingly, it offers strong evidence that Robert Redford wants to be Clint Eastwood when he grows up.
Consider: Redford (“The Horse Whisperer”) plays Einar Gilkyson, a wind-chapped Wyoming rancher who says “Damn!” and “Hell!” a lot and is quick to cuff punks who act up at the diner. He's flinty and withdrawn and has only one real friend: Mitch, a sententious, sagelike ranch hand played by Eastwood favorite Morgan Freeman (“Million Dollar Baby,” “Unforgiven”). Left crippled and disfigured by a bear-mauling, Mitch requires daily nursing, which Einar dutifully provides, in moody, half-lit scenes of platonic intimacy. Poetic masculine isolation doesn't get much more Eastwoody than that.
Into this sweet, if lonely, arrangement blunders Jean Gilkyson (Jennifer Lopez), Einar's estranged former daughter-in-law, bearing a nasty bruise under her eye (courtesy of the abusive boyfriend she escaped in Iowa) and a shell-shocked daughter (Becca Gardner) whom Einar never knew existed. Jean needs a place to stay while she gets back on her feet. Einar blames Jean for causing the car accident that took his son's life, but relents, mostly to get acquainted with the granddaughter.
What follows is a well-acted but strangely hollow exercise in reconciliation and catharsis that finds Einar — that stiffened strop of a man — softening under a warm love-bath of family and forgiveness.
Part of the problem is Jean; Hallstrom (“The Cider House Rules”) and screenwriters Mark Spragg and Virginia Korus Spragg seem loath to explore her uglier, less sympathetic qualities. (Due to J. Lo-mandated script changes, perhaps?) Consequently, she's presented to us as a strong, take-no-guff woman who has a tendency to drift into relationships with complete cretins. Lopez is adequate technically, but the character is contradictory and hastily conceived, especially in regard to a love affair Jean impulsively fires up with the town's handsome young sheriff (Josh Lucus from “Stealth”).
Hallstrom (“My Life as a Dog,” “What's Eating Gilbert Grape?”) is one of the few directors around who knows how to integrate quirky material into an effective and serious drama, but that's not a talent he's required to utilize here. Ultimately, we get redundant, circular scenes of Mitch admonishing Einar to forgive Jean and let go of his pain.
How useful it must be to have an elderly minority living bedridden in the log cabin next door — a surrogate conscience of your very own! When Mitch asks Einar to release from captivity the bear that mauled him, we can see that he's asking grief-mauled Einar to free himself, too. It's all just a bit too meek and orderly. (If people start slapping “Free the Bear” bumper stickers on their cars, I swear to God I'll move to China.)
There are plenty of touching, true-feeling moments in “An Unfinished Life,” especially when Redford shares the screen with Gardner, a natural actress who effortlessly extracts our sympathies. What the movie lacks is a propulsive dramatic element to scoop up all these nice moments and carry them through to the end. It certainly isn't Jean's jilted tormentor (Damien Lewis), a silly, irrelevant character designed solely to absorb an Eastwood-sized beating.
An Unfinished Life
Starring: Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez, Morgan Freeman
Rating: PG-13 (some violence including domestic abuse, and profanity)
Running time: 107 minutes
Playing: Opens Friday in Valley theaters