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Lone stranger Redford discovers meaning of life in sweet Western

"Smells like rain," says Morgan Freeman scanning the gorgeous sky.

"It's not gonna rain today," scowls Robert Redford with a three-day growth on his face surrounding the road map of wrinkles.

"You haven't been right about the weather since 1972," snaps back Freeman.

Oh, go ahead, if you absolutely must. Make jokes about "An Unfinished Life" despite the lovely title. Be irreverent. Everyone else will. It sat on Miramax's shelf for a couple of years, after all (not that it really should have).

Call this movie "Million Dollar Bear." Or maybe "Sierra Club Baby."

It's a sweet, cornball movie that is such a likable and honorable anachronism that if you took out the gorgeous Western landscapes and the occasional four-letter muttering, you could have scored with it in the golden age of television back in the 1950s (when the whole thing would have been played out in a TV studio).

It probably goes without saying (though it shouldn't) that this is a film that soft-hearted teens, parents and grandparents could see together with reasonable cross-generational contentment (provided, of course, that those who needed to could smart-crack freely in the car on the way home).

Based on a novel that is, as yet, unpublished, this is the one about the sour, crusty old Wyoming rancher who doesn't care about anything except the modern ranch he can no longer work and the pain-wracked old ranch-hand who can no longer help him work it because he was mauled by a bear (he needs morphine and a rubdown just to get through the day).

And then the daughter-in-law the crusty codger doesn't like (she was driving when his rodeo star son was killed) comes home with bruises on her face and an 11-year-old granddaughter he never knew he had. Both have been cuffed around a good deal back in Iowa by his daughter-in-law's scummy boyfriend.

So the operative family principle here is Robert Frost's "Home is the place where, if you have to go there, they have to take you in."

Redford sets personal records here in funk and grizzlement. When he replies to a chipper "Good to see you" at one point with "At my age, it's good to be seen just about anywhere," you'll have no trouble believing him. (He's 67 in life and looks every day of it here.)

His retired rancher no longer drinks or smokes. The ability to snarl at people at will and the occasional game of cribbage are all the pleasures his current life affords him. It is generally agreed that he is the most miserable SOB everyone knows.

So he is, at first, notably uninterested in his newfound granddaughter (played adorably by Becca Gardner). As anyone could guess, in no time at all he is teaching her how to identify a socket wrench as well as some of the more arcane mysteries of old pick-up truck transmissions. She's so happy to have any grandfather at all (not to mention a man who wouldn't dream of ever hitting her), that she is having the best time she's had in years.

Played against all that are some nice, if predictable, subplots -- the woman-beating boyfriend stalking them, the ranch-hand's need to settle up old business with the bear, the town sheriff who looks good for the part of new beau for the old guy's daughter-in-law (an audition in his squad car back seat seems to have gone well).

All of the acting here is first-rate, including, yes, Jennifer Lopez as the prodigal daughter-in-law who has returned home under notably adverse circumstances. (Subject for further research: Did Lopez's worthiness here help convince Redford's old friend and co-star Jane Fonda to make a comeback a short time after this movie finished shooting?)

I have no idea how many times Morgan Freeman has done virtually the exact same part but, by God, nobody does it better, so why not?

Lasse Hallstrom is a director so good at characterization and old-fashioned storytelling (see "The Cider House Rules," "The Shipping News" and "My Life as a Dog") that under his direction these people couldn't possibly have fared badly (earlier directors who, for one reason or another, begged off the project include Mark Rydell and Robert Altman).

There is, I think, only a hairline difference between neoclassicism and cliche.

With these performances and some gorgeous cinematography by Oliver Stapleton, this film falls nicely on the side of the angels.

AN UNFINISHED LIFE

Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)

STARRING: Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez, Morgan Freeman, Becca Gardner and Josh Lucas

DIRECTOR: Lasse Hallstrom

RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes

RATING: PG-13 for language and some violence

THE LOWDOWN: A Wyoming rancher's daughter-in-law brings home the granddaughter he's never met.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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