The Cider House Rules (Video Release) Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire What's Eating Gilbert Grape Chocolat Chicken Little
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Robert Redford turns toward Morgan
Freeman and asks, "Jennifer Lopez?
Jennifer Lopez?!? Who cast that
lightweight?" Morgan just laughs.

An Unfinished Life
(Hollywood remake or sequel, or film based on a comic book, book, play or video game # 47, since January 1st, 2005. Click for full list of Hollywood's lack of original ideas.)
Review written by: Alex Sandell

I have closely followed Lasse Hallström's career since he directed the wonderfully quirky, oddly depressing minor masterpiece, What's Eating Gilbert Grape.  Every time he directs a new film, I hope that he can recapture even a small part of the semi-satirical small-town feeling of entrapment and isolationism that he did in Grape. Unfortunately, up to this point, he hasn't.  Oddly enough, in each of his subsequent films, he has tried.

Hallström's follow-up to What's Eating Gilbert Grape was the overrated The Cider House RulesRules charmed audiences with a doomed romance placed against a bleak setting and filled with controversial topics such as incest, rape, war, and the death of a childhood hero.  Despite a few noble attempts, Hallström failed at delivering the emotional impact of What's Eating Gilbert Grape

After The Cider House Rules came the sugary sweet, Chocolat. Chocolat, if done correctly, could have lived up to the wonderful world of Gilbert Grape. Chocolat was a film based on a bittersweet book, with most of the "bitter" moments excised from the screenplay, leaving a sugary confection that lacked the punch of the novel. 

Next up was The Shipping News.  There were a few attempts at the blackest of black comedy that made What's Eating Gilbert Grape one of my favorite films, but they were surrounded by such overwhelming gloom that most of them fell flat.  Still, this was my favorite Hallström film, outside of Grape, and he seemed to be moving in the right direction.  The movie was promising enough, and I eagerly waited to see what Lasse Hallström would come up with next.

It was a long wait.

4 years after The Shipping News was released, comes An Unfinished Life.  Despite being disappointed by 3 Lasse Hallström films in a row, I somehow managed to like every single one of them.  Hallström's movies usually focus on an odd assortment of characters coming together to create a makeshift, dysfunctional family.  An Unfinished Life again focuses on this subject, but it's the most conventional of Hallström's films and it's the director's worst movie yet. 

The movie feels as unfinished as the short life that gave the film its title.  I have no idea if the picture was heavily edited after Hallström was through with it (it was shelved for a long while), but it seems someone took their scissors and sliced it down to as short a runtime as possible, leaving only a bare bones plot.  Sadly, either because of problems with the director or screenwriter, or problems later with producers and studios wanting the film to come in at under 2 hours, the characters seem more like sketches than fully fleshed out human beings. 

An Unfinished Life is the story of a woman abused (Jennifer Lopez) leaving her abusive lover (Damian Lewis) and moving in with her father-in-law (Robert Redford) who blames her for his son's death.  The woman was driving when her car flipped, killing her husband.  An old cowboy (Morgan Freeman) who worked with Redford on his ranch, before being disabled by a bear attack, keeps reminding Redford that it was a car accident.  "It was nobody's fault," he says in that wise way Morgan Freeman always says things in every single movie he's ever in, "that's why they call it an accident."

The bear that attacked Freeman's character is still alive, and is meant to be symbolic, but god only knows what the bear is meant to be symbolic of.  That's the problem with An Unfinished Life:  It feels like a 2 hour fortune cookie.  Little chunks of wisdom are dropped throughout, and everyone learns a thing or two.  But, like a fortune cookie, it is so many empty calories. 

The acting is competent, but Hallström doesn't quite get the memorable performances out of his actors that he is known for.  Morgan Freeman is the wise old man we met in the late 80's and early 90's in films such as Driving Miss Daisy, Unforgiven and The Shawshank Redemption and feel like we know in Batman Begins, Million Dollar Baby, and The Sum of All Fears.  He always makes the characters he plays interesting, and his character in An Unfinished Life is no exception.  Robert Redford plays a gruff John Wayne like cowboy, performed by Clint Eastwood.  Becca Gardner does a good job as Jennifer Lopez's character's young daughter, Griff.  And then there's J-Lo, herself.

What were they thinking?   

Jennifer Lopez almost single-handedly destroys this movie.  She is miscast as the down on her luck young mother.  She can't hold her own against legendary actors, Freeman and Redford.  Hell, she can't hold her own against fist-time child actress, Becca Gardner.  To be completely honest, she probably couldn't hold her own against a telephone pole.  This woman cannot act any better than she can sing.  She emotes her heart out in a scene with Redford, and you can almost see the wheels turning in her head.  You can see her trying to get all the gestures down right, the vocal inflections to come out of her mouth correctly -- you can tell that she's acting.  This movie isn't starring Jennifer Lopez.  It's starring Jennifer Lopez's ass (which is prominently displayed in tight jeans throughout most of the film).

Lopez's character gets a job at a cafe where she works as a waitress with the far more believable Camryn Manheim.  Manheim is to be commended for her work in this film.  She looks and acts like an overworked waitress.  Her performance rang true to me.  If anyone from this film should be remembered come award season, it is Manheim.  Her character, while as underdeveloped as most in this movie (her daughter died, we find out, and then find out nothing more), manages to hold your attention and makes this film worth watching.

Manheim isn't the only reason to see An Unfinished Life.  Oliver Stapleton once again impresses with his cinematography.  The long-time Hallström collaborator manages to turn an average movie into one worth recommending.  His trademark swooping aerial shots showcase the gorgeous scenery and make it a player in the film.

I was as disappointed with the formulaic screenplay as I was impressed with Stapleton's camera work.  Having J-Lo's abusive boyfriend hunt her down was unnecessary and slightly unbelievable (plus, didn't Jenny From the Block already play this part?).  I didn't believe the Damian Lewis character for a second, once he began dropping clues to his arrival in the form of *gasp* cigarette butts.  He's there to create a few crowd-pleasing moments, when Redford's character, whose temper is uneven at best, decides to put up a fight.

On the other hand, the bear in the film is wonderful.  I felt for that damn bear when I saw him trapped in a cage.  I wanted him to escape.  The scene between Freeman and the beast that mauled him is a stand-out moment.  I just wish it was made clearer what the bear was meant to represent.  Maybe nothing.  Maybe this film is just a simple slice of life.  In that way, it works. 

The movie is rather inconsequential, but it moves along at a nice pace (even if it is choppy, due, more likely than not, to studio interference).  There are tender scenes between Redford's character and his granddaughter.  The comedy in the film works almost every time (look for the scene between the granddaughter, Freeman and Redford, dealing with the topic of homosexuality).  Not all questions are resolved, while others are too easily tied-up. 

Is this movie disappointing?  Yes.  Is it worth seeing?  Yes.  Maybe it's the Swede in me, but even Lasse Hallström's most formulaic work keeps me enthralled.  I recognize the film's many weaknesses, but I'm able to look past them.  Even if the film is nothing more than the cinematic equivalent of a fortune cookie, it's one that's easy to swallow.

Agree, disagree, do you wish you had a better education?  Email Alex!

RECENT REVIEWS (click here to see ALL films reviewed in the last six months):

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Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith

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