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Thursday, Sept. 15, 2005 03:59 pm

Unfinished, but completely satisfying

The cinematic equivalent of meatloaf and mashed potatoes

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Brooding on his Wyoming ranch, Einar Gilkyson (Robert Redford) is a bitter man whose stubbornness seems to be the only thing that keeps him going. Brooding over the tragic loss of his only son a decade earlier, he’s a man whose life stopped on the fateful day and who lost his wife, and nearly his home, because of his all-consuming grief. The only one who’s stood by him through it all is Mitch (Morgan Freeman), his loyal friend and co-worker. Their quiet lives are upset by the sudden appearance of Einar’s daughter-in-law, Jean (Jennifer Lopez), and his granddaughter, Griff (Becca Gardner), who are on the run from the latest in a long line of abusive boyfriends. Reluctantly Einar allows them to stay, an act that changes all of their lives profoundly.

As sure as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, Jean falls for the town’s handsome and curiously single sheriff (Josh Lucas), the loser on her tail shows up in town, and deep, dark secrets she’s harbored for far too long come spilling out in a torrent. This is a by-the-numbers-story if there ever was one, and director Lasse Hallström wisely keeps things moving a brisk pace.

However, An Unfinished Life is an actors’ showcase, and the cast makes what could have been mundane worthwhile, thanks to earnest performances. Redford has never been regarded as a great actor, but he is doing some of his best work late in his career, playing flawed characters forced to face their faults on their way to redemption. Freeman gives his usual able support, playing the only character to see each situation clearly and dispensing sage advice. Lopez reminds us that she is a solid performer with decent range. And Gardner makes a worthy debut as the wide-eyed little girl who proves the vehicle of salvation for all involved.

More than anything, An Unfinished Life is the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. Like a big pile of mashed potatoes and a slab of meatloaf, it winds up being completely satisfying, even though it’s a meal you’ve had hundreds of times. This film reaffirms the notion that when bad things happen to good people, healing is possible and life can go on.

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