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"An Unfinished Life": A review by Gary Chew

An Unfinished Life
The cast relaxes between takes

GARY CHEW/Sacramento

Well-read persons who've filed the term "liberal" in their dirty word folder, may wish to take a pass on the new movie, "An Unfinished Life." A film whose title borrows heavily from another used, in part, for a biography of an assassinated political icon of the 20th century may cause disciples of Leo Strauss and any other such currently-applied philosopher to opt for "The Cowboys."

But such thinkers would be missing out on a touching story about values they profess; such things as courage, loyalty, love and protection of one's family as well as one's home and community. Add to this a beautiful, rural setting in the low mountains of the west (actually shot in British Columbia) and a very small town populated by just plain folks who lead just plain ordinary lives like most of us do.

Morgan Freeman and Robert Redford
Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman

Redford, the longtime liberal movie actor, director and producer, is a pretty seasoned-looking Sundance Kid these days in a contemporary film which also stars Morgan Freeman and Jennifer Lopez. Yet, Redford's character, Einar Gilkyson---who could hail from Lake Wobegon---is just about as conservative an old coot as you might find scraping by quietly on a rundown Wyoming ranch.

Einar is also giving a hand to his old cowboy buddy, Mitch (Freeman) who's been terribly mauled by a grizzly bear that roams this neck of Wyoming woods. Mitch stays in Einar's bunk house where he gets some of Einar's groceries everyday and a shot of morphine for the continuing pain caused by his horrible ordeal with the big bear. Einar wants to kill the bear; Mitch not only wants the animal to live, but be released from captivity a few miles down the road in the small town near Einar's place.

Robert Redford and J Lo
Becca Gardner, J Lo and Robert Redford

Enter Jean Gilkyson, (Jennifer Lopez) Einar's widowed daughter-in-law. Tagging along is Jean's daughter. Einar doesn't know he has a grandaughter. Her name is Griff (Becca Gardner; her first film). Jean left several years ago after her husband died in a car accident in which Jean was the driver. There are lots of bad vibes still resonating between Jean and Einar because his son has lived an unfinished life. Jean vamoosed pregnant by her husband but she's never told Einar about her child who is just moving into puberty.

Jean has returned to Wyoming to escape an abusive relationship with her boyfriend back in Iowa. Although Einar has strong negative feelings about Jean, he also has very strong emotions about men who abuse women. This is made plain in a scene where some local yokels humiliate the town's cafe owner, played so well by Camryn Manheim. You'll remember her best as Ellenor in the television series, "The Practice."

"An Unfinished Life" is a touching film with some rich, yet totally hackneyed characters living in a completely predictable story. You've seen this film before in a different place, a different time with different actors...and some of the same actors; notably, Freeman in his superb niche as the strong, steady, loyal companion. Does anybody remember "Million Dollar Baby," which was actually shot after "An Unfinished Life"? Release of this latest Redford film, which has Lopez billed first at some sites, has been a long time in the pipeline.

Lopez, as an actress, is convincing in the role, but her natural beauty and wardrobe are less than genuine alongside the likes of Gardner (the daughter) and those frazzled old codgers: Redford and Freeman. Ms. Lopez sells tickets, yes. Even her bodyguard got billing in the closing credits, but someone just as pretty, but more funky and less sanitized would have given a more authentic tone to "An Unfinished Life."

Lasse Hallström and Robert Redford

Director Lasse Hallström and Robert Redford

Lasse Hallström, the Swedish director who gave us "The Cider House Rules" in 1999 is calling the shots here with a script written by Mark Spragg and Virginia Korus Spragg. A PG-13 rating has just been put on the film. That's mostly because of the medium-heavy cowboy lingo uttered by the Redford character and subtle sex play between Lopez and the local sheriff. Let's put it this way: I've asked my 13-year-old daughter to see the film with me. I think it will be a good one for her. I think it will be for you, too; if you're able to watch a well-known liberal superstar preach some values he's held for a long time in the voice of a very libertarian/conservative latter day cowboy.

Born sixty-eight years ago last month, there's likely little unfinished about the life so far lived by Robert Redford.

"An Unfinished Life" official site at Miramax.

Gary Chew can be reached at garychew@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2005, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.

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