Screens : A ripe old cheese

'An Unfinished Life' buries a strong cast in heavy-handed sentiment

A fine line stands between sentiment and sap, and Swedish native Lasse Hallström has spent his career stepping across it. In his winning 1985 crossover film, My Life As A Dog, an atmosphere of beautiful strangeness and some fine performances kept cute melodrama at bay despite the two ingredients - a young child and looming familial disaster - that always invite it. After Hallström's Hollywood breakthrough, though, such efforts as Chocolat have had less luck.

Jennifer Lopez, center, is the only weak link in an otherwise strong cast that includes Robert Redford, left, and Morgan Freeman. Still, An Unfinished Life succumbs to director Lasse Hallström's saccharine tendencies, writes critic John DeFore.

So it almost seems accidental when Hallström's An Unfinished Life here and there declines to manipulate us. Young actress Becca Gardner, for instance, as the daughter of a single mom whose life is uprooted, displays a tasteful restraint despite ample opportunity for mawkishness. But an actor might show good taste despite her director's wishes, and in many of the elements that are more firmly under his control - script, narrative metaphor, and camera placement, for instance - Hallström is clearly trying to wring a response out of the audience instead of letting us arrive at it naturally.

Gardner plays the unfortunate daughter of Jennifer Lopez (the very weak link in an otherwise fine cast), a widow who has finally decided to jettison the last in a string of abusive boyfriends. With nowhere to turn, Lopez heads out to cowboy country to live with Robert Redford, an old codger who didn't know he was a grandfather. Redford's son, Lopez' husband, was killed in a car wreck with Lopez at the wheel, and the old man has since held a grudge against the world in general and Lopez in particular. Imagine how he'd feel if he had seen Gigli.

Out on the ranch with the Sundance Kid is Morgan Freeman, a magnificent screen presence who has far too many times been stuck with a part like this one: He plays Redford's faithful ol' ranch hand, who a year ago was mauled by a bear and now depends on his boss' kind help with morphine shots and the like.

An Unfinished Life

Dir. Lasse Hallström; writ. Mark & Virginia Korus Spragg; feat. Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez, Morgan Freeman, Josh Lucas, Damian Lewis, Camryn Manheim, Becca Gardner (PG-13)

If you think that sounds a tad familiar - maybe like a movie Freeman was in last year with Clint Eastwood - you're right. As in Million Dollar Baby, one of the main pleasures in An Unfinished Life is the lovably grumpy banter between two old men who, despite having a boss/employee relationship that looks an awful lot like master and servant, have come to see themselves as kin. Make what you will of the racial politics there; judged simply as two veteran actors playing off each other, it's enjoyable.

Unfortunately, this relationship is saddled with all sorts of melodramatic trappings, the most egregious of which is the bear who mauled Freeman and now is a metaphoric stand-in for all the free-floating guilt and "that's just his way" aggression this story has to offer. It's all just this side of tolerable, a fine piece of high-profile cheese, until the closing scene - in which a feel-good bit of dialogue sends the camera reeling far, far away from the speaker, while the microphone capturing the words doesn't have the good judgment to stop working.

By John DeFore

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