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Subordinate Claws

The culprit in 'An Unfinished Life' is a predictable screenplay, but let us now praise famous bears

By Richard von Busack

AFTER SITTING in the can for two years, An Unfinished Life has a stale flavor unperked by Lasse "Wholesome" Hallström's direction, star Robert Redford's movie-long séance for John Wayne or Morgan Freeman's more credible attempt to channel Walter Brennan. The theme—like almost everything connected with Redford or the movies trumpeted at his Sundance Festival—is a family reconnecting under the shadow of the Western landscape.

Hallström is at his best during the economical first scenes. Jean (Jennifer Lopez, seriously miscast) and her daughter, Griff (Becca Gardner), head for the hills, fleeing Jean's battering boyfriend, Gary (Damian Lewis). When their car breaks down, Jean decides to go to the only place she can think of: her home town in Wyoming, where the elevation is three times the population. Turning tail to home means reconnecting with Griff's ornery grandfather: the dry-drunk Einar (Redford), who tends one lone milk cow, the last of all his stock. In his off-hours, the rancher talks to the tombstone of his dead son, which bears the words "An Unfinished Life." Einar's other duty is nursing the still unhealed wounds of his ex-hired hand and now closest friend, Mitch (Morgan Freeman, pitted with PG-rated scars, looking like Queequeg in Moby Dick). The secrets of Mitch's wounds and Einar's anger with Jean are all revealed in time. Meanwhile Jean waltzes into a job at the local chat-and-chew, befriending the head waitress (UCSC's own Camryn Manheim). She also commences a sex-only-please tryst with the local sheriff (Matthew McConaughey look-alike Josh Lucas).

Watching the movie is like playing pool with W.C. Fields—all the balls go exactly where you think they should, and it's hard to work up surprise at the way the game ends. Scriptwriters Mark and Virginia Korus Spragg are working from formulas that were old when they were young. Still, the film is unclear in important spots—as in the matter of whether or not Jean has a restraining order against her boyfriend. John Wayne might have indicated the uncomfortable moods stirring under the rancher's shell. Unfortunately, Redford is a cute boy who turned into a cute codger. Strangely, he inspires such respect in the battered granddaughter that she calls him "Sir" upon first sight, recovering nicely from all of her bad experiences with men. An Unfinished Life isn't over until Einar has beat up not one, but three separate young punks—scenes that are supposed to be Viagra for old actors. The film is full of easy-reader symbolism. Still, it boasts one uncompromised performance. Bart the Bear II is a Kodiak bear formerly known as Little Bart. The grizzly has been coached, like his late, lamented namesake, Bart (1978-2000), by Doug and Lynne Seus, who must be the antitheses of Timothy "Grizzly Man" Treadwell when it comes to understanding bears. The bruin has a thankless part—he must symbolize Einar's id, his unspoken grief and anger. Despite the script, Bart II is marvelous: beguiling in friendliness, plaintive when caged, sterling in sharp-clawed menace. Can he direct?

An Unfinished Life (PG-13; 107 min.), directed by Lasse Hallström, written by Mark and Virginia Korus Spragg, photographed by Oliver Stapleton and starring Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez and Morgan Freeman, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the September 7-13, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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