Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez and Morgan Freeman in Lasse Hallstroms An Unfinished Life.
Innocence wears well
Film stars Jennifer Lopez, Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman
By Jerry Tallmer
Lillian Hellman, who titled her 1969 autobiographical memoir An Unfinished Woman, would have turned up her nose at the movie called An Unfinished Life thats opening September 9. Too innocent for tough-talking no-nonsense playwright Hellman.
And thats whats nice about it, its innocence, a rare enough DNA in movies above all, in the bloated, mechanized, dehumanized billion-dollar Hollywood insults of this era.
An Unfinished Life revolves wholly around innocence, be it that of Griff, the fatherless, watchful 11-year-old girlchild at its center (actually a 13-year-old find named Becca Gardner); or Griffs sleep-around runaway mother (the gossip worlds Jennifer Lopez, with admirable control and a beautifully painted bruise on her right jaw); or the big bad coppertoned grizzly bear that prowls around the periphery of the picture until clapped into a sideshow cage like a detainee at Guantanamo; or big bad Einar, a human grizzly (Robert Redford), the kids embittered old grandfather, who hates her mother his daughter-in-law for killing his only son, Griffs dad, by falling asleep at the wheel one night; or Mitch (Morgan Freeman), old Einars longtime hired hand and one and only friend for 40 years.
Some years ago the aforementioned bear had mauled Mitch, half killed him, left him a scar-faced cripple for life. Thats what bears do, says Mitch. I want him set free. Mitch is also a diabetic. Every morning Einar brings him his coffee and then shoots a needleful of insulin into his cranky old buddys backside to keep him alive.
Wide-eyed, silent Griff, the granddaughter to whom Einar has not yet given the time of day, feels the need to say something, make conversation, fill in the void, break the silence. I had a music teacher who was a lesbian, the 11-year-old remarks. And then, matter of factly, looking from her grandfather to Mitch to nowhere: You guys are gay, right?
Wrong. But, its a very sweet moment, innocence enthroned atop innocence. Dont bears like honey? the girl says. Winnie-the-Pooh does.
How old is she? Mitch asks. She still believes everythings going to turn out all right, and thats a good age, Einar replies. Next thing you know, Grizzly Old Grandpa stops brooding over his sons rough-hewn tombstone up in the hills, and also stops grilling his daughter-in-law with questions like: Are you screwing Crane Curtis [the local sheriff] for protection or sport?
Einars own sport, or necessity, will be to set that bear free, toward which end he with unaccustomed patience teaches young Griff, whose help he will need, how to drive a pickup truck. The setting free of the bear terminates, of course, in comic that is to say, innocent disaster.
The grouchy old man / innocent youngster tandem goes back in movies past John Wayne and W.C. Fields and Michel Simon (The Two of Us) and a hundred others, all the way to Chaplin, and no doubt even before him. Its sure-fire stuff, but not usually, in films made by Americans, as subtly-smoothly as in the script here by novelist Mark Spragg and his wife Virginia Korus Sprague.
Among the producers of this Miramax / Revolution Studios entry are Harvey and Bob Weinstein, in what may be seen as their Miramax swan song. Two other producers are Alan Ladd, Jr., and Kellian Ladd, husband and wife. The director they chose, and they chose well, was Lasse Hallstrom. He is Swedish, the story is set in Wyoming, it was shot in British Columbia. Makes no difference. Like Hallstroms lovely My Life as a Dog, another parable of youthful innocence, it could have been set and shot almost anywhere.
The fun, the charm, has a lot to do with seeing that J-Lo can really act, and that Robert Redford, older, heavier, beakier (thanks in part to makeup), and more disagreeable than in anything since, perhaps, The Way We Were (1973), is fully as interesting, if not more so, than the beautiful golden Robert Redford we all grew up with during these past 40 years the same span of time as Einar and Mitchs friendship.
It wears well. He wears well. And keep your eye on Becca Gardner. Which is almost impossible not to do.