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An Unfinished Life

An Unfinished Life (2005) is just the kind of star-studded melodrama that make studios greedily anticipate the gratification of awards season. Acclaimed stars like Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman mingling with cross-cultural phenomenon Jennifer Lopez and the rising talent of Josh Lucas. A generational story of love, loss, and reunion, set against the scenic backdrop of Wyoming. And all under the delicate hand of Swedish director Lasse Hallström, whose movies have been Oscar-magnets since his fine 1988 breakthrough foreign language effort My Life as a Dog earned him a Best Director nod and led him to a Hollywood career of prestigious art house titles like What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, The Cider House Rules, and Chocolat. Yet, An Unfinished Life flopped at the box office and received no honors — while it is well-made in most regards and bears no egregious flaws, it is surprisingly, forgettably ordinary. Lopez stars as Jean, a battered girlfriend who packs up her 11-year-old daughter Griff (Becca Gardner) and leaves Iowa, but when their car breaks down 300 miles away from home, the homeless pair head for Wyoming, where Griff's grandfather, Einer (Robert Redford) continues to mope over the death of his son, the father Griff never knew. Although Einer is crusty and bitter, and blames Jean for the car accident that killed her husband, he takes a reluctant liking to his wise-beyond-her-years granddaughter. As Einer and Griff bond, the tension between Einer and Jean simmers and then explodes before they ultimately come to a mutual respect and affection. And, of course, Morgan Freeman is on-hand as Einer's stoic and sagacious friend of 40 years, who, even though he was badly mauled by a wild bear a year ago, yearns for the bear's release from humiliating captivity, because that's the kind of character Freeman always plays. An Unfinished Life is probably as good as it can be as one of those movies where nearly every character gets to deliver a heart-felt, soul-bearing speech uncomplicated by subtext. All of the actors — even the underrated Lopez — are very, very good, and there are some nice, gentle moments that elevate what is, in essence, a remedially manipulative Hallmark Network-quality, "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" screenplay by Mark and Virginia Korus Spragg. Hallström, thankfully, eschews the smug polemics of his more recent movies, but in doing so drifts fairly aimlessly throughout this anonymous and predictably hokey kitchen-sink drama, notable mostly for Freeman's self-parodying typecasting as a grizzled, hard-knocks, know-it-all impressively spouting, Tourettes-like, pseudo-penetrating nonsense. Also with Lucas as Jean's nice new love interest, and Camryn Manheim. Buena Vista's DVD release of An Unfinished Life offers a good anamorphic transfer (2.40:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Supplements include an earnest commentary by Hallström, producer Leslie Holleran, and editor Andrew Mondshein, as well as the featurettes "The Making of An Unfinished Life" and "Training Bart the Bear." Stills gallery, keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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