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No novel is safe so long as director Lasse Hallström is loose, but at least this time he’s picked one of no significant reputation. Like such Hallström denovelizations as The Shipping News and The Cider House Rules, An Unfinished Life is a sentimental ode to makeshift families with some warm moments but scant lasting impact. Adapted for the screen by author Mark Spragg and his wife, Virginia Korus Spragg, the story turns on Jean (Jennifer Lopez), who hasn’t seen father-in-law Einar (Robert Redford) in 12 years, since shortly after the car crash in which her husband—his son—died. She was driving, and the martyred Griff was apparently a paragon. Jean’s subsequent taste in men, however, has been lousy. Her latest beats her, so she takes the granddaughter Einar doesn’t know he has, 11-year-old Griff (Becca Gardner), and flees to the dilapidated Wyoming ranch where Einar lives with former ranch hand and current best friend Mitch (Morgan Freeman), who was mauled by a bear. A bitter ex-alcoholic, Einar roars unwelcomingly when Jean appears. But the old horse whisperer apparently still has an affinity for preadolescent girls, and he gives Griff a quick education in cowboy ways, which includes giving Mitch an emergency short of morphine when the pain from his injuries inevitably erupts. Having moldered in Miramax’s vault for two years, An Unfinished Life was made before Grizzly Man punctured anyone’s fantasies of anthro-ursine empathy. So the lumbering bruin (Bart the Bear II, successor to the star of The Bear) that shredded Mitch is the first character to appear onscreen, and also the occasion for putting everything right. Einar wants to kill the animal, but Mitch has come to understand his former attacker, insisting that Einar free the animal from a shabby local zoo. Griff accompanies him on this rite-of-passage mission—an adventure that will change her life, though not anyone else’s. The film’s story, emotions, and performances are all predictable, and the director’s use of the widescreen format is so unimaginative that this routine big-sky soaper might as well be shown in 16 mm. —Mark Jenkins