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Review: 'Unfinished Life' has its bright spots

Poky, predictable, but there's promise in acting, photography

Paul Clinton
For CNN.com

Life
Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez and Morgan Freeman in "An Unfinished Life."

FACT BOX

'An Unfinished Life'

Starring: Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Lopez, Becca Gardner

Directed by: Lasse Hallstrom

Written by: Mark Spragg and Virginia Spragg

Studio: Miramax

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Review
Movies

(CNN) -- "An Unfinished Life" gathered dust on a shelf at Miramax for two years before finally seeing the light of day. The belated release is understandable. Slowly paced with an extremely predictable ending, the film has its faults.

But if you allow yourself to be lured in, the movie still manages to be both moving and poignant largely because of the superb acting, cinematography and direction.

Robert Redford, looking every inch his age, plays a grizzled Wyoming rancher, Einar Gilkyson, who has wallowed in bitterness since the accidental death of his son and only child.

Morgan Freeman plays Mitch Bradley, Gilkyson's longtime friend and ranch hand. Years earlier, Bradley suffered a vicious attack by a grizzly bear, which left him maimed, partially crippled and totally dependent upon his friend Einar.

Together the two men reside on the ranch which is rapidly going to seed due to a combination of indifference and grief.

Their lonely existence is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of Gilkyson's estranged daughter-in-law, Jean (Jennifer Lopez) -- Einar's son's widow -- and a granddaughter, Griff (15-year-old Becca Gardner) Einar didn't even know existed.

Jean Gilkyson is being physically abused by her boyfriend Gary (British actor Damian Lewis) and with great reluctance she has returned to her father-in-law's remote ranch for temporary shelter.

Meandering

Things just meander along. Griff slowly integrates herself into her grandfather's life and wins his love and acceptance. Mitch, who has his own demons to face, helps out.

Jean starts to gradually rebuild her life with the help of two local people, the town's sheriff, Crane Curtis (Josh Lucas), and a restaurant owner, Nina (Camryn Manheim), who gives the desperate young woman a job.

Then the abusive Gary suddenly shows up, and the characters' tentative ties are put to the test.

Director Lasse Hallstrom -- who also brought us "Chocolat," "The Cider House Rules," and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" -- always seems to be drawn to stories dealing with dysfunctional characters in emotional crises. "An Unfinished Life" is no exception.

Working with some longtime collaborators, cinematographer Oliver Stapleton and production designer David Gropman, Hallstrom has taken a script by Mark and Virginia Spragg and created a film which is moving and thoughtful -- despite its many dramatic clichés and syrupy overtones.

The performers help. There's an evident chemistry between Redford and Freeman (who worked together, 25 years ago, on "Brubaker"), and Lopez gives a fine performance as the vulnerable, guilt-ridden young widow and mother. Gardner is also exceptional as Griff, who helps bring them all together.

On paper, "An Unfinished Life" could have been a forgettable TV movie of the week. But the excellent talent, both in front of and behind the camera, elevates this film to a sum greater than its parts.

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