The Barenaked Archives: An Unfinished Life

From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies.

So, I give you my very first regular feature: The Barenaked Archives. These are reviews that I did for SIN or Hollywood Elsewhere (or both). Sadly, SIN and my column on HE are both gone, so this is now the only place online you can see these old columns.

An Unfinished Life

unfinished_life_webAn Unfinished Life really wants to be an Oscar-worthy character drama. It’s put together all the trappings: an abused woman escaping her abuser with her daughter, a hostile parental figure with whom she hasn’t spoken in ten years, a wise yet crippled friend, and a quaint, secluded small town where the hustle and bustle of big-city life has never stepped foot.

But something’s missing. Maybe it’s that we get the sense we’ve seen these characters before. Maybe it’s the fact that as soon as they’re together, we can tell where they’re going to end up. Maybe it’s the fact that some subplots feel tacked on. Whatever the reason, that “something” is what holds An Unfinished Life back and makes it feel…well, unfinished.

Einar Gilkyson (Robert Redford) is a Wyoming rancher still haunted by the death of his son ten years earlier. He lives a solitary life on his ranch, with the only company being his best friend Mitch (Morgan Freeman), who was mauled about a year before by a grizzly bear. Einar’s less than thrilled when his daughter-in-law Jean (Jennifer Lopez), the woman he blames for his son’s death, shows up on his doorstep, but he’s shocked to see her daughter Griff, a granddaughter Einar never knew he had. Will he be able to mend the relationship with his remaining family members?

One thing you can’t criticize about this film is the acting. For pity’s sake, it’s Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman. You know they’re going to do a great job going in. Redford nails the bitter, grizzled old rancher, and Freeman’s role is quite similar to his Oscar-winning one in Million Dollar Baby. (Not saying that’s a bad thing, just saying it means Freeman knows what he’s doing.) Jennifer Lopez does well enough in her role, and newcomer Becca Gardner holds her own as Griff, and that’s saying something.

The setting, also, is beautiful. It’s a raw, natural beauty that comes from out-of-the-way places and small towns nestled in the crook of a mountain. Even though the ranch is old and in some ways falling apart, there’s something comforting about seeing a place that’s so close to nature and weathered so much still standing there year after year.

However, there’s something about An Unfinished Life that just doesn’t click. It leaves a sense of confusion, like you know you should’ve liked the movie better, but you didn’t and you just can’t figure out why.

Part of it is the subplot with Jean’s abusive boyfriend, Gary. I hate to say it, but after they get out of town the first time, he just doesn’t strike a very threatening chord. He tries to be, but he’s a city boy and you know as soon as he sets foot in the small Wyoming town that it’s only a matter of time before somebody kicks his ass. It feels like it was either hacked to death in the editing room or tacked on at the last second.

It also doesn’t help that the whole movie has a vague feeling of déjà vu, like it’s been seen and done before, and better. It’s as though the director took the ingredients for what he thought would make a good movie and threw them in the pot without regard for how much and in what order they should be added.

Even though An Unfinished Life has some strong points, as a whole it seems something’s been left out, something that could’ve pushed it past the “Well, it was good, but…” sentiment.

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