Well, the summer movie season is over and the kids have gone back to school. Now we can begin to renew our appreciation of "serious, adult" pictures like An Unfinished Life which was directed by Lasse Hallström and self-adapted by novelist Mark Bragg, but which could just as easily have been put together by a cabal of marketing executives determined to appeal to the dimmer, more disenfranchised members of Oprah's Book Club.
The plot in a nutshell: Jennifer Lopez and her ass flee an abusive boyfriend in Iowa to get a fresh start on her father-in-law's ranch in Wyoming. It's only a scant improvement, given that the latter cowpoke, Einar (Robert Redford), is a bitter curmudgeon who blames his daughter-in-law for the death of his boy in a car accident. While she bears the brunt of his lingering resentment, she lands a job at the local greasy spoon. Our heroine who, denoting our Jen's immense dramatic range, is named "Jean" also meets the local lawman (Josh Lucas, natch) and immediately starts taking him to heaven in the back of his ride. Because that's what you do when you're Jennifer Lopez and you're stuck in Wyoming.
Meanwhile, the abusive boyfriend has tailed Jean to their new hideout. This revolting development is not lost on Redford's Einar, who is proving to be quite the protector figure after all. He's taken an unexpected shine to Jean's 11-year-old daughter, even bringing the kid along with him on the heartfelt chats he has with his son's tombstone (which is conveniently located on or very near his property). Variations of this scene occur four or five times, making Einar a shoo-in for Father of the Year. I don't know any dad who talks to his living son that often in the space of 107 minutes.
Somehow, Einar still finds the time to look after his buddy, Mitch (Morgan Freeman), a proud invalid who was once mauled by a bear and now has to go through life looking like a black Robert Davi. Once a day, Einar gives Mitch a morphine shot in the posterior (this movie is big on heinies); occasionally, he rubs soothing oil into Mitch's mangled flesh. The whole setup is awfully gay, which the movie finally acknowledges when the 11-year-old Griff (Becca Gardner) misjudges the fellas' orientation and everybody has a big laugh except for the real queers in the audience, who realize they have once again paid $9.50 to be the butt of the joke.
The bear itself is a player in the picture, at first roaming the neighborhood and then cooling its heels in a nearby zoo as Mitch fixates on their essential interrelatedness. The animal, it's obvious, is a symbol for life. Or maybe death. Whatever it is, I'm sure it's something really important.
The alt-Starbucks soundtrack that twangs away in the background is the perfect accompaniment to the sight of the impeccably made up J. Lo swanning around in her tight, clean jeans, offering eye-candy relief packages to whatever husbands and boyfriends have been dragged to the theater. Redford sports razor-guarded three-day stubble and the most tastefully arrayed hat head in the world. Though his character has been given some good bastard lines "This yours?" he asks Griff's mama when they're first introduced we never for a moment believe the actor's halfhearted hard-man routine. We can tell that, the minute the cameras stopped rolling, he broke into a kindly grin, mussed the kid's own hair playfully and reminded her that he didn't really mean it. Yet that sort of inherent bogusness is crucial to the movie's target audience: bored suburban women who wonder what it's like to be loved by a man of the open land, but would never actually move there, not even under pain of death.
At least the story isn't predictable. Try as I might, I absolutely could not figure out what color shirt Redford would be wearing when he finally kicked the abusive boyfriend's ass.