A bear runs through "An Unfinished Life," both literally and figuratively, a bear that symbolizes the ways this potentially involving film goes astray. And despite the presence of high-wattage talent like Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez and Morgan Freeman, astray is where it definitely goes.
To be fair, "An Unfinished Life," directed by Lasse Hallstrom, is not as damaged as might be imagined given the months it spent on the Miramax shelf in the wake of that company's reorganization. It's an acceptable film, but the story of family ties and forgiveness simply cannot manage the emotional connections it is desperate for.
That, of course, is not the bear's fault. But if you've seen the documentary "Grizzly Man," the first thing you notice about this film's bear (played by the Doug Seus-trained Bart II, the successor to the legendary Bart) is how phenomenally sleek he is, groomed and blow-dried enough for a Ralph Lauren ad.
The same can be said for "An Unfinished Life's" earnest narrative about troubled relationships, slicked-up and polished to within an inch of its life and not any more real than the bear. This is the kind of film that when someone asks, "Do you want to know the ugly little truth?" it takes an effort not to scream, "No, no, a thousand times no!"
The other problem with the bear is that he is not just a random beast roaming rural Wyoming (actually British Columbia), he is on the prowl for awkwardly metaphoric purposes. And if the bear's presence is too pat and obvious, so is the screenplay by the husband-and-wife team of Mark Spragg and Virginia Korus Spragg.
That script has an interesting history. It started out with discussions between the Spraggs. He, a novelist and screenwriter, turned the idea into a novel, while she, a former therapist, did the first draft of the script.
The leanly written novel was widely praised for its unsentimental nature when it was published last year, but that quality is nowhere to be found in the film. Which is not surprising given that director Hallstrom, whose previous films include "The Shipping News," "Chocolat" and "The Cider House Rules," is a known wallower in emotion.
The film's story is not a complicated one. It starts with cantankerous rancher Einar Gilkyson (Redford), living outside Ishawooa, Wyo., with former hired hand Mitch Bradley (Freeman), now disabled because of an attack by that wandering bear. Up on a hill above the ranch house is the grave of Einar's died-too-young son, with a gravestone inscribed "An Unfinished Life."
Halfway across the country, Einar's widowed daughter-in-law, Jean (Lopez), and Griff, the 11-year-old granddaughter he doesn't know he has (a charming Becca Gardner) are having problems of their own. Ensnared in an abusive relationship with soft-spoken psycho Gary (Damian Lewis), Jean returns to Ishawooa for the first time in more than a decade. Einar, who holds Jean responsible for his son's death, does not exactly greet her with open arms, but local sheriff Crane Curtis (Josh Lucas) is more receptive.
If you've ever seen a movie, you know what's going to happen. Griff and her grandfather will get close, psycho Gary will show up out of nowhere and that pesky bear will serve some dread metaphorical purpose. It's not that the action is that badly done, it's that it's so obvious.
While Lopez, Freeman and Lucas do solid work, it is Redford who seems to be having the most fun playing the crankiest geezer in town. Still, if you compare his scenes with Freeman with what Freeman did with Clint Eastwood in a similar relationship in "Million Dollar Baby," you end up respecting what Eastwood and screenwriter Paul Haggis accomplished more.
When the bear isn't on screen, "An Unfinished Life" makes do with sentimental musings like "Do you think the dead really care about our lives?" If that includes watching pictures like this, the answer is probably no.
'An Unfinished Life'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some violence, including domestic abuse, and language
Times guidelines: Wife beating, sexual references and other adult material
Released by Miramax Films. Director Lasse Hallstrom. Producers Leslie Holleran, Kelliann Ladd, Alan Ladd Jr. Screenplay Mark Spragg and Virginia Korus Spragg. Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton. Editor Andrew Mondshein. Costumes Tish Monaghan. Music Deborah Lurie. Production design David Gropman. Set decorator Lesley Beale. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
In general release.