It comes as no surprise that the merchandise Miramax is selling these days (in the dreg weeks of summertime moviegoing, as the company switches to new, Weinstein-less management) is slightly irregular. Not for nothing did The Great Raid, The Brothers Grimm, and Underclassman earn their loserplex release slots. So the absence of a pulse in An Unfinished Life, while dismaying, is hardly shocking: Had there been stronger corporate belief in the viability of the catalog item, such a prestige production — starring Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, and Jennifer Lopez, directed by Lasse Hallström, and based on a well-respected specimen of bear-wrestling, male-bonding, woman-bruising literature by Mark Spragg — might not have sat on the shelf so long.
Still, there’s a certain valedictory frisson to seeing the movie now, a time-capsule rightness. An Unfinished Life is inert, kaput — a middlebrow mush of platitudes rather than an okay corral of distinct characters with heartbeats. It’s awful not in an exciting, uncontrolled way but in an overly controlled, narcotized way, an imitation of too many inspirational heal-the-pain dramas that Miramax has released since the dawn of their Oscar age. But by those very failings, the work is, oddly, a moving epitaph for just the kind of cinema with which the influential company stormed Hollywood in the first place. And it’s fitting that this faux celebration of human resiliency is directed by Hallström, who helped perfect the formula with The Cider House Rules and Chocolat.
Spragg’s novel perches somewhere between a John Irving fantasia and a Jim Harrison tussle in which guilty men come to terms with their angry inner animal and women pick themselves off the ground where they’ve been knocked by some lout. Hallström’s kinder, gloppier interpretation favors more golden Hollywood key-lighting to tell the story of Einar Gilkyson (a stubbled Redford, muttering to himself), an ornery coot intractably bitter over the death of his son; his maimed hired hand and best friend, Mitch (Freeman); and Jean (Lopez), his widowed daughter-in-law with lousy taste in boyfriends, who shows up at Einar’s remote Wyoming ranch seeking refuge, black-and-blue but nevertheless well coiffed. (She looks ready to cut a pop album if cajoled.) So that the young can teach the old, Jean totes a granddaughter (newcomer Becca Gardner) Einar never knew he had, one of those brave Pippi Longstocking types so in vogue. There’s tension between Einar and Jean, tension between Jean and her abusive ex (a thanklessly focused Damian Lewis), bonding between the granddaughter and Einar, and marital-style bickering between Einar and Mitch. There’s also a supposedly fearsome bear — I think he represents the roar in every man — who, through no fault of his own, suffers greatly in comparison with the magnetism of the killers in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man.
The novel moves forward with a certain dagnabbed masculinity of literary style. The movie (with a screenplay by the author and his wife, Virginia Korus Spragg) puddles with indulgence, a big dollop of it served up by the stars themselves, each of whom is playing Redford Man (taciturn horse whisperer), Freeman Man (saintly friend of a white guy), or Lopez Woman (roughed-up enough for Enough, but with perfect make-up ”bruises”) one time too many.
As an era ends, are we finished with synthetic literary concoctions like An Unfinished Life? I hope so. A river runs through it, all right, but don’t ask ”A river of what?” because it’s not polite to say.