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"An Unfinished Life" Movie Review

A Pleasant, Low-Key Surprise

By

Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez and Morgan Freeman in

Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez and Morgan Freeman in "An Unfinished Life"

© Miramax Films
Robert Redford. Morgan Freeman. Jennifer Lopez. Take a moment to consider a marquee with those three names listed as the stars of a single movie. And not just any movie. Consider the threesome as stars of director Lasse Hallstrom's (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Cider House Rules”) relationship drama, "An Unfinished Life." Just the thought of Redford, Morgan and Lopez together as the leads in the same film made me want to bust out in an old Sesame Street song. I tried to look at those names and not sing to myself, “One of these things is not like the other…,” but I lacked the self-control to hold back.

I can see Redford and Freeman. It takes zero imagination to believe Redford and Freeman playing two old friends. The two Oscar winners pairing up for a movie makes a lot of sense. But Redford, Freeman and J-Lo in a subdued movie set on a ranch in the middle of nowhere? I went into the film not buying it and came out still not completely sold on the end product, but at least not as disappointed about the result as I anticipated.

If what I’ve just admitted makes it sound like I prejudged the film, then I apologize. I didn’t have a preformed opinion about the film itself. I just know from being burned in the past that I’m not a big fan of Jennifer Lopez films so I was prepared to be let down once again. And while she’s definitely out of her element in “An Unfinished Life,” director Hallstrom managed to shoot her scenes in a way which best complimented her style. It also helps that her dialogue is very limited and she’s not called upon to provide any sort of comic relief. This is a straight-out dramatic role and Lopez, at least in my book, seems to perform better in dramas than in comedies.

But enough about Lopez. “An Unfinished Life” is really the story of Redford and Freeman’s characters and their friendship, which spans four decades. “An Unfinished Life” is a leisurely paced, moving story of two guys growing old together, taking care of one another, being there for each other through thick and thin, and making the most out of lives that are slowly but surely winding down.

Einer Gilkyson (Redford) has shut down since the death of his only son 11 years earlier. He goes through the day to day task of taking care of his once thriving ranch by rote, while providing medical attention and friendship to his closest friend, Mitch Bradley (Freeman), who lost much of his independence after being mauled by a bear the year before. The pair, who have worked together on Einer’s ranch for 40+ years, are an odd couple. One’s still an optimist ready to tackle new adventures even while his body prohibits him from doing much more than sit in a comfy chair on the porch. The other still breathes but isn’t really living.

Einer’s physically capable of doing anything, yet his spirit is so broken he has no desire to vary his activities or the energy to play nice with others. But when his former daughter-in-law, Jean (Lopez), shows up on his doorstep accompanied by her 11 year-old daughter, Griff (Becca Gardner), he’s forced to deal with the news that he’s a grandfather. He’s also forced to finally come to terms with the loss of his son and the hatred he has for the woman he holds responsible for his son’s untimely death.

Writers Mark and Virginia Spragg and director Hallstrom carefully and deliberately walk the audience through “An Unfinished Life.” Minor plot details aren’t revealed in a flurry. We’re afforded the opportunity to get to know a little of each of the lead characters before being introduced to the side plots involving boyfriends and a bear. There’s no rushing to tell a story. Only an unnecessary and silly romantic relationship between Lopez and Josh Lucas’ characters seems out of place in this otherwise tightly scripted story.

In truth, ‘tightly scripted’ doesn’t adequately describe Hallstrom’s latest effort. The dialogue has been pared down to the absolute bare minimum, which is a blessing. We aren’t subjected to lengthy discussions or monologues and instead are allowed to play the part of eavesdroppers into the lives of a couple of old friends who don’t need to use a lot of words to communicate.

Overall, it's the quality of acting in “An Unfinished Life” that makes this film a cinematic treat. Surrounded, and in most cases overshadowed by superb performances from Redford, Freeman, Lucas, Damian Lewis (as the chain-smoking abusive boyfriend), and newcomer Becca Gardner, Lopez actually gives one of her best performances to date.

“An Unfinished Life” isn't a movie that makes a lasting impression. But it is a crisply acted, well-plotted film, refreshing in its lack of artifice and entertaining enough to be worthy of dropping a few bucks to check out while it’s still in theaters. It’s also stunningly shot, which is a big plus in these days of shaky hand-held cameras and music video-style feature films.

GRADE: B-

“An Unfinished Life” is rated PG-13 for some violence including domestic abuse, and language.

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