Part of living is dealing with loses of all types. And people can either accept them and try to move on (using philosophies such as the old "what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger") or they can dwell within them perpetually.
In Lasse Hallstrom's "An Unfinished Life," the plethora of damaged souls come in both varieties. There's the single mom who finally flees from her abusive boyfriend whose continued abuse has left her 11-year-old daughter distrustful of most men.
That girl never knew her father who died in a car accident before she was born, an incident that's left her grandfather bitter, angry and still pointing fingers armed with venom and blame. His friend was severely mauled by a bear and left partially debilitated, while a local waitress's daughter drowned sometime in the past.
If that doesn't sound like an uplifting movie, I don't know what does. Yet, the screenplay by Mark Spragg ("Gross Anatomy") & Virginia Korus Spragg (making her debut) interjects enough humor and human camaraderie that it's not a complete downer. And it happens to feature a great cast - including Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman - under a director who knows a thing or two about films featuring damaged souls (those being "The Shipping News" and "The Cider House Rules" among others).
The film, though, is not without its share of flaws, and it might be up to how the viewer perceives them as to whether this will be a half-full or half-empty experience. The most obvious issue is that nearly ever character is damaged in one way or another.
Hallstrom and company thankfully spread out such disclosures so that they don't overwhelm the viewer in one fell swoop. Even so, by the time the fourth or fifth such damage is revealed, you begin to wonder if this is some sort of cursed, wayward town or if even the walk-by extras have formulated their own personal dilemma to fit in with everyone else and the overall theme.
Then there's the fact that some of the dialogue - particularly the advisory type speeches that occasionally border or dive headfirst into the seas of pontification - are a bit thick and temporally out of place. While I understand that the arrival of Jennifer Lopez's abused character would stir up a series of painful and/or unwelcome memories for the one played by Robert Redford, the sage comments offered by Morgan Freeman's character (seemingly in place of the voice-over narration used for the same purpose that he occasionally provides for films like this) are too convenient for the film.
By that, I mean that they likely would have occurred a number of times over the intervening years and thus would not need to be repeated now. And if they were, then Redford's character should have called him on that or simply ignored it from having heard it too many times or due to it being too heavy-handed and/or symbolic.
The final faults are that parts of the film are too predictable, particularly in regards to the abusive boyfriend character - played by Damian Lewis ("Dreamcatcher") - who's simply too two-dimensional and unbelievable in scope, and needs some extra or expanded material and/or depth to explain his behavior.
Then again, a development I thought for sure was going to occur - which would not have pleased the audience but would have tied in perfectly with the theme of loss, fault and forgiveness - doesn't ever arrive, although it comes quite close. And Hallstrom does a decent job of creating some red herring moments in terms of what you know is going to happen, but aren't sure exactly when that will be.
Where the film excels is in its relationship between Redford ("Spy Game," "The Horse Whisperer") and Freeman ("Batman Begins," "Bruce Almighty"). Their chemistry together not only is great, but it's also believable. Some will certainly be reminded of Freeman's similar role and chemistry in "Million Dollar Baby" with Clint Eastwood (although this film was reportedly shot before that one and has been caught in some sort of distribution limbo related to the recent Miramax shakeup).
Equally as good is their interaction with young newcomer Becca Gardner that thankfully doesn't stoop to the usual "Three Men and a Baby" meets "Kindergarten Cop" material where the men have no idea how to deal with a child. Such cross-generational scenes here feel natural rather than forced, and they give the film such much needed warmth and uplift.
Jennifer Lopez ("Monster-in-Law," "Shall We Dance") is decent in a role that thankfully yanks her out of those mindless romantic comedies in favor of pure drama, Josh Lucas ("Stealth," "Wonderland") plays her new potential suitor/local law enforcement officer, and Camryn Manheim ("Dark Water," "Scary Movie 3") has a small part as a local waitress who befriends Lopez's character.
With the positive elements outnumbering and outweighing the negative ones, the good but not great "An Unfinished Life" earns a recommendation.