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Jennifer Lopez……….Jean Gilkyson
Robert Redford……….Einar Gilkyson
Becca Gardner……….Griff Gilkyson
For another generation there were only three actors that mattered: Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and Robert Redford. While McQueen’s death 20 years ago has relegated him into the sort of mythical status that James Dean or Marlon Brando enjoy and Newman is known to another generation as a face on a bottle of salad dressing as opposed to one of the leading actors of his generation, Redford has achieved a different type of role that few embrace: elder statesman. While Newman picks and chooses supporting roles in the same manner that Michael Caine does (except with less frequency than his English counterpart), Redford is still able to find roles as a leading man. He still has what it takes to be the main billing on the marquee, as he has lead roles and often shares top billing with more established leading men of today like he did with Brad Pitt in 2001’s Spy Game. Redford steps into the spotlight once again with An Unfinished Life.
Redford stars as Einar Gilkyson, a rancher. Einar takes care of his ranch and of his best friend Mitch (Morgan Freeman), the former poorly and the latter quite well. All is going well as it can for him, as he does have a life of solitude, until his daughter-in-law Jean (Jennifer Lopez) arrives. She’s broke, running away from an abusive ex-boyfriend and with a girl she claims to be Einar’s granddaughter Griff (Becca Gardner), and Einar still views her as the sole reason why his son died (tragically in an accident). It’s embittered him to large portions of the world, especially in light of the bear mauling that crippled his friend. Into this world come Jean and Griff as they slowly warm up his old, crusty heart. Featuring an A-List cast, it is the first great dramatic film of the upcoming Oscar season, mainly due to a surprisingly great performance from “J-Lo” and a return to brilliance from Robert Redford.
An Unfinished Life is a reemergence of sorts of the actress Jennifer Lopez used to be. Before she became the better part of the Bennifer craze, displayed her wares as a moderately talented musician and marketing brand, Lopez displayed potential as one of the better young actresses around. After critical acclaim and a Golden Globe nomination for Selena, Lopez descended into the sort of romantic comedy hell that plagued many an actress.
Her portrayal brings much needed depth to what could have been an otherwise lackluster role. Jean is a woman in search of herself after coming to grips with the death of a spouse and the birth of a child at the same time. Her character is also developed well, in part to the range of the actress playing her. Jean goes all the way from Iowa to Einar’s ranch as a halfway point in her search for something more for herself and her daughter and winds up learning a lot both about life and its impact on others. It’s a role that requires a lot of nuanced character development that Lopez does well.
And that is a running theme throughout An Unfinished Life. We are given certain aspects of the characters at first; Einar isn’t nice to everyone, yelling and being a general malcontent about the state of his life, but he shows a softer side as well. But it’s the way it happens that is telling; he doesn’t go from being Scrooge to Daddy Warbucks like he would in an inferior movie. He lets Jean and Griff warm his heart, but it’s a subtle, genuine way. For years he has grieved the loss of his son and blamed the world on it; he feels that he’s been cheated out of something in his life. Redford doesn’t have to be a handsome leading man who everyone likes; it’s a rare glimpse at an actor allowed to play a character that is out of the norm and succeeding.