A long time ago there was a spoof of a Japanese television show on Saturday Night Live. In it, a father commanded his son to do his homework, and when the son replied that he had no homework, the father proclaimed, “Then you must fight the bear!” He opened the front door, and there stood a man in a bear suit who promptly grabbed the little boy. An Unfinished Life is based on the premise of fighting bears, and sometimes it makes about as much sense as that skit.
J Lo stars as Jean, a crappy single mother with an abusive boyfriend (Damian Lewis from Dreamcatcher). When she finally realizes that she and her daughter, Griff (Becca Gardner), need to get away from him, she has nowhere to go but her father-in-law’s ranch. They’ve been estranged for many years, and Jean must swallow her pride to ask for help. Still, the reception is chilly. Einar (Robert Redford) has lived alone with Mitch (Morgan Freeman) for a long time, and he’s not interested in allowing Jean back into the fold. She was driving the night his son was killed in a car accident, and on some level he still holds her responsible. When he learns he has a granddaughter he never knew about, he’s even more disgusted.
Jean has never forgiven herself for the accident either, and somehow feels the need to punish herself by engaging in one sleazy fling after another. Shortly after returning to her hometown, she takes up with the local sheriff (Josh Lucas). Though he’s of better caliber than the others, Griff sees him as just one more of mom’s men. Here I have just one question: why does the leading lady in this movie need to suck? Jean is basically good to her daughter, but the little girl is never her first priority. The situation would be far more compelling if Jean weren’t such a selfish trash bag. Why should Einar accept her? He’s still grieving the loss of his son, and the woman responsible for his death isn’t worth her weight in manure.
With this kind of emotional baggage, it’s no wonder Einar is reluctant to bond with Griff, but eventually the little girl grows on him. How could she not? She’s had to be responsible where her mother is flaky, and she’s a smart kid. She wins the hearts of Einar and Mitch simply by breathing life into the ranch. She names all of the many barn cats, keeps a level head in times of crisis, and generally makes for a pleasant companion. I loved watching her interaction with these men, even though many of the scenes were reminiscent of those between Robert Redford and Scarlett Johansson in The Horse Whisperer.
Wondering where the bears come in? Well, Mitch was nearly crippled by a bear whose dinner he interrupted. He’s also diabetic, and depends upon Einar for help with everything from dressing and shaving to administering his insulin shot. Even so, Mitch isn’t bitter about his lot in life, and he doesn’t hate the bear for mauling him. In fact, when the bear (played by Bart II) is captured and placed in a cage downtown, he asks Einar to check in on it from time to time. Mitch’s bear is real.
Einar’s bear is Jean and the repressed emotions she forces him to face. Does he want to embrace his granddaughter and move on with his life, or does he want to spend his days visiting his son’s grave and feeling bitter? Conversely, Jean’s bear is Einar and the overwhelming guilt she feels over her husband’s death. Oh, and her third bear is the bad boyfriend who comes back to haunt her, because that’s what always happens with bad boyfriends in movies. They inevitably track you down, show up at your place of employment, talk trash, and grab you by the wrist. Each character must fight their bear (or bears) before the movie’s end.
There’s not a lot to complain about when it comes to watching Morgan Freeman and Robert Redford onscreen, and An Unfinished Life is palatable because of them. Camryn Manheim does a great job with a minor role, and Becca Gardner is a talented little newcomer. However, the story feels like it was ripped from The Wonderful World of Disney, and I’m not sure it’s even as moving as, say, The Girl Who Spelled Freedom. Einar and Griff’s absurd mission to let the bear out of its cage leaves you cringing and shaking your head. We get it. You have to let go of your demons or they will hold you prisoner. There’s no need to clobber us over the head to make the point.