Well, here's an intriguing threesome: Jennifer Lopez, Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman all mucking about together in the wild open country of Wyoming. The prospect of J.Lo laying it down with the Sundance Kid -- while Central Casting's Wise Old Salt mutters sagely on the side -- certainly gets those anticipatory juices flowing.
Unfortunately, in "An Unfinished Life," this unusual convergence of stars doesn't amount to much. Their characters may have plausible reason to be together, but the actors are too busy re-spinning their overfamiliar routines to pull you into the story. Their presence overshadows the drama so much there isn't a believable frame in the movie. After a while, you even start doubting the scenery, which, incidentally, was filmed in British Columbia.
Lopez is Jean Gilkyson, a single mother on the run from an abusive boyfriend (Damian Lewis). Out of money and still sporting a fist-size bruise on the side of her mouth, she takes her preteen daughter Griff (Becca Gardner) on the road and heads straight for Wyoming. That's where Einar Gilkyson (Redford), Jean's former father-in-law, tends his desolate ranch.
"I have a grandfather?" says Griff, when her mother tells her where they're heading.
"Not much of one," says Jean.
Jean and Einar, we learn, haven't spoken since the car accident that took her husband's life some years back. Griffin was Einar's beloved son and his grave sits on the hill above the ranch. Einar hasn't forgiven Jean for being the driver that day and he's never even set eyes on his granddaughter.
So here they are, the remnants of Einar's family, asking for a few weeks' shelter until Jean can get a job and get her life back on track. Einar grudgingly lets them into his home, where they meet Mitch (Freeman), whose face and body are disfigured from a bear mauling. Einar plies him with daily morphine shots. Everyone, it seems, is hurting or hating.
At this point, "An Unfinished Life" runs into a massive standstill. Its entire design lies before us in all its blaring predictability: Einar and Jean will have that climactic yell-fest, when they lay everything on the line, all the pain and bitterness. It's a cinch, too, that Einar will bond with Griff, who's definitely a chip off the old block's old block. And Mitch will slyly manipulate everyone together.
Mitch, by the way, has his own burden to bear -- or is that bear for a burden? In a subplot that has metaphor burned into it like a cattle brand, the beast that attacked him now prowls behind bars at the local zoo; Mitch can't move on with his life, you see, until he faces the skulking bear again. Can you say "Free Willy"?
Director Lasse Hallstrom, who made the wonderful "My Life as a Dog," "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" and "The Cider House Rules," has created a Hollywood studio version of an independent movie. It's a gentle meander of a story. It's big on blue sky and lush heartland. Its characters are weighted down by grudges, sorrow and character-building ennui. Unfortunately, all this atmosphere is just backdrop for the posh A-listers to get some indie street cred.
Lopez is playing a slight variation on the ain't-gonna-take-it-no-more abusee she played in 2002's "Enough." As Jean, she skitters amateurishly between "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" martyrdom and Jenny-From-the-Block toughness as she squares off verbally with Einar and still finds time to show Griff she's a great mom. Whenever she's onscreen, "Unfinished Life" feels like one of those dramatic preambles to a music video. That bruise, by the way, seems to change shape every scene.
Redford's hellbound to remain the craggy cowboy who hides his feelings under Marlboro Man stoicism. Must he act like a River Runs Through everything? In a scene whose sole purpose is to make him look tough, he swings a coffeepot at two bullies who are harassing a waitress. Sure nice of those big guys to run away in "terror" from the Old Grump with the java.
As for Freeman, well, you'd swear he wandered over directly from the set of "Million Dollar Baby." Scenes in which he and Einar trade Tough Love barbs -- while Einar tends to him at his bedside -- amount to note-for-note repetitions of the quippery between Freeman and Clint Eastwood in last year's Best Picture winner.
An Unfinished Life (100 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for some violence, including domestic abuse and profanity.