A film is in trouble when, despite the presence of an A-list cast and a well-regarded director, the best thing in it is a bear. Part of Miramax's celluloid mountain of unreleased fodder due to bow this autumn, pic can only hope to appeal to a blockbuster-weary older demographic and escape critical mauling.

A film is in trouble when, despite the presence of an A-list cast and a well-regarded director, the best thing in it is a bear. After two years on the shelf, Lasse Hallstrom’s “An Unfinished Life” emerges as a cliched meller about the tense reunion between a Wyoming rancher (Robert Redford) and his long-lost kin. Most of the film’s above-the-liners seem to be retracing old steps, creating a somnambulant atmosphere. Part of Miramax’s celluloid mountain of unreleased fodder due to bow this autumn, pic can only hope to appeal to a blockbuster-weary older demographic and escape critical mauling.

In Ishawooa, Wyo., former alcoholic farmer Einar Gilkyson (Redford) takes care of his few remaining animals and his best friend Mitch (Morgan Freeman), a former ranch hand who suffered terrible injuries after being attacked by a bear. The two get by on stoicism for Einar, morphine for Mitch and mutually sustaining old men’s banter.

The spread’s delicate emotional ecosystem is suddenly upset by the arrival of Jean Gilkyson (Jennifer Lopez), Einar’s errant daughter-in-law, who ran off pregnant 12-odd years ago after Einar’s son Griffin, the “unfinished life” of the title, was killed in a car crash. Jean had been driving, and Einar never forgave her.

Since then, Jean has been dragging her 11-year-old daughter Griff (newcomer Becca Gardner) around the country. Her latest boyfriend, Gary (Freeman’s “Dreamcatcher” co-star Damian Lewis), hit her one too many times, hence her trek to the old homestead.

The drawn-out middle act observes this newly formed family as they tentatively establish bonds, particularly between young Griff, her gruff granddad and his friend whom, in the pic’s funniest scene, she assumes is his gay lover. Jean gets a job as a waitress in the town’s only restaurant working alongside good broad Nina (Camryn Manheim), and starts knocking boots with local sheriff Crane (Josh Lucas) after warning him to look out for her ex, Gary.

Sure enough, two ferocious creatures resurface. The bear that mauled Mitch is captured and stuck in a makeshift zoo. Meanwhile, Gary starts skulking round the ranch’s edge, smoking cigarettes to signal his irredeemable nature. When Einar escorts Gary out of town at gunpoint, Gary sneers, “You’ve seen too many Westerns, old man,” to which Einar retorts, “That doesn’t exactly work in your favor.”

But then again, Gary has a point. Viewers will have seen too much of all this for it to feel fresh; too many better modern Westerns lauding down-home values; too many pics where a liberated animal is the symbol of redemption; too many Lasse Hallstrom middle-brow tales about misshapen or outcast folk who form makeshift families (“The Cider House Rules,” “The Shipping News,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”); and one too many stories where Redford co-stars with a bear (“Jeremiah Johnson”) and J-Lo struggles to regain audience sympathy by playing a victim of abuse (“Enough”) with perfectly coiffed hair and a decorative bruise that color-coordinates with her wardrobe.

Thesping is not up to the usual Hallstrom standard. Redford, who seems to be putting his own laconic spin on a part that feels like it was written for Clint Eastwood, doesn’t muster anything much more than dignity and manly grumpiness, but at least he can really throw a lasso.

Meanwhile, Freeman is, as he was in “Million Dollar Baby,” the pic’s tragedy-worn Jiminy Cricket, looking noble in adversity and uttering wise advice from his sickbed. Young Gardner has a tough tenderness, and she brings out the best in her older male co-stars.

Lopez’s perf, however, is strictly one-note. Editing seems designed to disguise her weaknesses by reducing her role to a number of backlit closeups that let her look pretty. In what should be her biggest scene — a fight with Einar about her husband’s death — the camera offers mostly closeups of Redford reacting as she shouts at him from offscreen.

All in all, ursine thesp Bart the bear offers the most memorable turn of the lot.

Mark Spragg’s tidy adaptation of his novel, collaborating with Virginia Korus Spragg, pushes didactic forgiveness and family-values themes for all they’re worth in the last act, which may get soft-hearted viewers sobbing. Still, Hallstrom dawdles over tying up loose ends and the pacing feels maple-syrup slow.

Best element out of the generally pro but decidedly average tech package is the typically rich, honey-hued lensing by regular Hallstrom collaborator Oliver Stapleton. Use of widescreen does ample justice to breathtaking British Columbia locations. Score by Christopher Young is mawkish.

An Unfinished Life

Production

A Miramax (in U.S.), Buena Vista (in U.K.) release of a Miramax, Revolution Studios presentation, in association with Initial Entertainment Group, of a Ladd Co. production. (International sales: Miramax, New York.) Produced by Leslie Holleran, Kellian Ladd, Alan Ladd Jr. Executive producers, Michelle Raimo, Meryl Poster, Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein, Matthew Rhodes, Mark Rydell, Graham King, Joe Roth. Co-producer, Su Armstrong. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Screenplay, Mark Spragg, Virginia Korus Spragg, based on a novel by Mark Spragg.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Oliver Stapleton; editor, Andrew Mondshein; music, Christopher Young; production designer, David Gropman; art directors, Karen Schulz Gropman, James Steuart ; costume designer, Tish Monaghan; sound (Dolby Digital, SDDS, DTS), Rudy Zasloff; supervising sound editor, Michael Kirchberger; visual effects, Jim Finn; assistant director, Stephen Dunn; casting, Kerry Barden, Suzanne Smith, Billy Hopkins. Reviewed at Edinburgh Film Festival (Directors Showcase), Aug. 19, 2005. Running time: 107 MIN.

With

Einar Gilkyson - Robert Redford Mitch - Morgan Freeman Jean Gilkyson - Jennifer Lopez Griff Gilkyson - Becca Gardner Crane - Josh Lucas Gary - Damian Lewis Nina - Camryn Manheim The Bear - Bart

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