I think Robert Redford came across the script for An Unfinished Life on his desk, saw that it said “set in Wyoming” and agreed to the project without ever reading a single line of dialogue. And who can blame Redford? The movie looks stunning, and if someone paid you a couple million dollars to shave Morgan Freeman in the wilderness for a couple of months, you’d agree to it too!
But it does feel very much like a paycheck movie for Redford and Freeman. Hell, the film essentially copies Freeman’s closing monologue from The Shawshank Redemption at the end there. You will never see these two actors as their respective characters, they never convince you they are anything different than wilderness-loving-Robbie Redford and mellow-toned-Morgan Freeman. And the movie doesn’t really call for it either: Redford is a curmudgeony rancher, distraught and emotionally isolated after the unexpected death of his son, who also looks after Freeman who was recently attacked by a bear (the bear is a huge plot driver, HUGE!) One day, his daughter-in-law, played by Jennifer Lopez, shows up at Redford’s ranch after dealing with the abusive behavior of her boyfriend, Homeland’s Damian Lewis. But J.Lo has a surprise with her, a young daughter, played by Becca Gardner, who was born after J.Lo’s husband died.
Instead of embracing his daughter-in-law and newfound granddaughter with open arms, Redford keeps a wide distance between them, speaking in three word sentences, still holding a grudge all these years against J.Lo for his son’s death. The best stuff of the film is between Redford and Lopez, butting heads and hearts as they hold each other on trial, trying to find blame in the other over the death of their beloved spouse and son. But Gardner is a delight as Lopez’s daughter, evoking plenty of heartfelt moments and a few laughs, proving she’s a big enough personality to fight alongside these big acting dogs (and bears).
But An Unfinished Life feels pretty much like that, unfinished. We reach the end of the film with a few dramatic threads still left untied, and a lot of the dialogue is hokey and overly sentimental. It’s the type of film that your mom would watch and then you’d get concerned after hearing her crying hysterically from her bedroom. You’d then rush upstairs and then ask what’s wrong and then she’d say, hysterically and incoherently, “nothing, it’s just, it’s…this movie is soooo sad” while wiping away her mom tears and blowing her mom nose into dozens of mom tissues.
It’s an emotional movie aimed specifically to pull at the heartstrings of emotional people. If you’re not one of those types, you’ll probably be indifferent to it. But if you are the type of person who cries when Wilson gets separated from Tom Hanks or when Andy pulls back Woody at the last moment in Toy Story 3, well strap on your seatbelt and open up your tear ducts ready, because I’ve got a bear of a movie for you.