J. Lo Is Good! In Lasse’s Western

If Jennifer Lopez continues to surround herself with real actors of serious distinction like Jane Fonda, Robert Redford and Ralph Fiennes, then sooner or later something is bound to rub off. And so, for whatever it’s worth, she gives her strongest performance to date in the wonderful, beautifully crafted film adaptation of Wyoming author Mark Spragg’s brilliant novel An Unfinished Life. This is due in no small part to the living, breathing, three-dimensional performances of Mr. Redford, Morgan Freeman, Josh Lucas and an impressive little actress named Becca Gardner who embodies the soul of a mature woman in the body of an 11-year-old child. They make J. Lo stretch and focus and toe the mark. An Unfinished Life isn’t her movie—it’s a strong ensemble piece in which she contributes only one ingredient—but in it the pop icon shows off a great deal more than her well-publicized booty. She works hard, and the sweat pays off.

Carefully adapted by Mr. Spragg and his wife Virginia, An Unfinished Life retains all of the book’s rich and vivid details, while providing a keenly observed dossier on the strange, resilient ways people in the modern American West feel and talk and think. It’s literature with a camera, thanks to the sensitive direction of Lasse Hallström, who proved with such films as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Shipping News and The Cider House Rules that he has a special pipeline to the vagaries of the human heart. No matter how diverse his characters might be, he finds the key to unlock their deepest secrets, and they don’t get more diverse than in An Unfinished Life.

The story, abbreviated: Mr. Redford plays a codger named Einer Gilkyson, a scruffy rancher in the wilds of Wyoming who came from the land and devotes his life to the land despite the fact that in these changing times, the failing land doesn’t love back. Ten years ago, his treasured son Griffin died in a car crash, and Einer has never recovered from the grief. Now he is also burdened by the job of caretaker to his oldest friend, Korean War buddy and most loyal ranch hand, Mitch (Morgan Freeman), who was ravaged and crippled by a bear. Einer’s problems double with the unexpected arrival of Jean Gilkyson (Ms. Lopez), his dead son’s wife, who has traveled from a trailer park in Iowa to the wilderness to escape an abusive boyfriend, dragging along her 11-year-old daughter, Griff (Becca Gardner). Einer is both furious and curious. He has no use for his estranged daughter-in-law, whom he still blames for the car accident that killed his son, but Griff is a granddaughter he never knew he had, the only thing left of Griffin, and even the bearer of his name.

With no means of support, Jean gets a job waiting on tables in a local café and begins a new relationship with the local sheriff (Josh Lucas), while Griff hangs out with the two old men and learns to ride a horse, bale hay, drive a pickup truck and give Mitch his morphine injections. As the old man starts to thaw and slowly bond with the child, a lot of humor and humanity shine through. But then the grizzly that mauled Mitch returns with a taste for blood, Jean’s sadistic boyfriend Roy from Iowa tracks her down, Einer lands in the hospital, and everyone is tested.

Doesn’t sound like much, but it’s the complexity of the wounded characters and the way they find the missing chords in their imperfect lives through each other that gives this film its depth and substance. Confronting inner conflicts with courage and grit, each character finds his or her own soul. Jean rediscovers her own strength and resourcefulness as a woman, gaining self-respect in the process. Einer lives through his pain to rekindle a compassion for others he thought he’d surrendered forever. Mitch conquers his deepest fears by facing the bear that destroyed his life. Griff is no longer a lost, leftover person, but a growing woman with a hopeful future. Cynics often charge Mr. Hallström with sentimentality, but here is a director for whom telling a story always comes first. He’s strong on narrative action, which has become a lost art in contemporary cinema, yet he always takes the time to let his characters develop naturally before your eyes, almost as though you’re watching the film in “real” time. This requires real actors, and an ensemble as polished, skilled and generous as the one in An Unfinished Life is as good as it gets in an age when most casts seem to be appearing in entirely different films, even if they’re onscreen together at the same time.

In his most rugged and ragged role in years, Mr. Redford plays Einer to the hilt in his best understated way. In Mr. Freeman, he has the perfect partner. They can parse an emotion down to its most revealing subtext and move you deeply when you don’t even know why. And they’re as funny a mismatched pair of over-the-hill cowboys as Butch and Sundance 40 years on. When Griff wonders aloud if they’re gay, the myriad reactions from this pair of wild cards begin down in the boots with surprise, roll out of the stirrups with side-splitting hilarity, and end up hiding the kind of mutual affection that two aging saddle tramps would equate with eating quiche. Both innocent and worldly beyond her years, young Becca Gardner as Griff reminded me of an adolescent Jennifer Jason Leigh.

As for J. Lo, I must admit she reveals a seldom-tapped reserve of calloused sweet uncertainty that is admirable; challenged by formidable company in every scene, she holds her own corner of the ring. No knockout here—from anybody. In smaller roles, valuable assistance is offered by Camryn Manheim as a salty waitress, Josh Lucas as the man with the badge who is a nice contrast to the usual redneck fuzz in books and movies set in Wyoming, and Damian Lewis as the violent boyfriend. Mr. Hallström guides them all to seamless victory in a film about love, loss, family, friendship, forgiveness and the elusive nature of redemption. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see that kind of movie often. Do not miss this one. An Unfinished Life is powerful, intriguing, thought-provoking and unforgettable.

Psycho

The previously noted Damian Lewis, who plays the heel in An Unfinished Life—proving again there’s no such thing as a small role of no significance when a big actor gives it his own special stamp—is again on view in the odd, disturbing psychological drama, Keane. This intense portrait of a tightly coiled man in crisis coming rapidly unraveled on every level is a bigger showcase for Mr. Lewis’ talent and range, which is vast. A British actor familiar to audiences at the Royal Shakespeare Company who can play Americans with no trace of an accent, Mr. Lewis has what looks like a bright future in American films.

In Keane, he portrays the tormented inner psyche of a man whom we never really come to know, but whose desperation is utterly compelling. Keane, a handsome man in his 30’s whose appealing looks have been diminished by sleepless nights of terror, anxiety and panic, wanders dazed through the city searching for his daughter, who has disappeared without a trace in a bus station. Jittery, mumbling and talking to himself, he looks more like a psycho who has lost track of reality than a father who is trying to restore it. As the film progresses, he grows increasingly more unbalanced, living in a cheap hotel, drifting in and out of taverns, snorting cocaine and returning repeatedly to the terminal to find his daughter’s kidnapper.

Then he meets a single mother with a young daughter of her own, broke and disillusioned and friendless. While Keane reaches out to them and takes a small step toward normalcy, he also becomes unnaturally obsessed with the little girl. While the mother (the astonishingly talented Amy Ryan) tries to sort through the detritus of her own life and her relationship with a man in another city whom she is afraid to return to, Keane is allowed into their world as friend and confidant. In time, he becomes a kidnapper himself, willing someone else’s child to replace his own lost daughter, who might not have existed in the first place. The unexpected finale is as lovely as it is surprising.

This is the third film for director Lodge Kerrigan, a New Yorker with a distinct style and vision, a special way of examining lives under stress and an emphatic feeling for actors. He makes you constantly question your own response to what you’re seeing, until you don’t know what’s going on or whom to trust. The frantic and unnerving first half of Keane exudes a hypnotic sense of claustrophobia, as Mr. Kerrigan’s camera traces every nerve in Mr. Lewis’ face; then the film relaxes into a triangular structure (man on fire, mother in distress, daughter in sweet confusion), but the director never loses his hammerlock hold on the audience’s emotions. The sense of impending horror and potential tragedy never wavers, which makes the almost placid ending doubly baffling as the light surface hides deeper, darker truths. A few things are certain: Damian Lewis is on a roll, Lodge Kerrigan is a director worth watching, and Keane is a small wonder in a season of big but deadly, brainless blockbusters.

A Lush Life

An early cabaret season is off to a smashing start with the welcome “comeback” of jazz icon Annie Ross, every Wednesday and some Saturdays stretching into mid-October at Danny’s Skylight Room on West 46th Street, in the heart of Restaurant Row. Call 212-265-8133 for showtimes and reservations. The first can be erratic, and the latter is imperative; this living legend is packing them in. From the tongue-tickling “Twisted,” her own signature classic (penned with saxophone wizard Wardell Gray), through the tricky vocalese lyrics that she added to solos in the Count Basie band, pausing here and there for dreamy ballads like “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” Ms. Ross is a master class in how to sing jazz inside out, upside and down. Recently, the opportunities to hear her do this have been rare. A lifetime spent dancing recklessly on the lip of a volcano has compromised the old vocal cords, but I don’t know any other singer about whom it can be said that while the pyrotechnics of perfect pitch and tone may have left the room, it couldn’t matter less.

Talking in tempo on “One Meat Ball”, she demonstrates for all aspiring jazz singers the value of being an accomplished actress in the bargain. On songs by Victor Herbert, she doesn’t need two octaves to break your heart. She is fearless enough to sing Lorenz Hart’s bittersweet lyrics to “Nobody’s Heart” without a piano. Ms. Ross has a syncopated swing that carries you aloft on a low, lush voice that changes notes like the valves in a trombone. She has warmth and feeling and an almost spiritual connection with sophisticated lyrics that cannot be taught by a vocal coach with a metronome. Her sense of time and rhythm will fracture you. It has always been thus.

Sailing from the highlands of Scotland into the lowbrows of Hollywood at the age of 4, imitating her legendary aunt Ella ( Finian’s Rainbow) Logan—brogue and all—in the “Our Gang” comedies, playing Judy Garland’s scene-stealing kid sister in the MGM musical Presenting Lily Mars, moving on to the jazz circuit, working with everyone from Billie Holiday to Miles Davis, owning her own famous club in London, marrying black drummer Kenny Clarke when such things were politically unsafe, flirting with drugs before rehab was so fashionable that it got you a spot on Dave Letterman, making history as the centerpiece of a revolutionary vocal group called Lambert, Hendricks and Ross in the 1950’s, selling out from Covent Garden to Birdland, disappearing in the 1960’s, then back from nowhere, starring in movies for Robert Altman, falling down and picking herself up and starting all over again: The story of her life could—and will—fill a book, and since nobody knows the saga better, she’s writing it herself. Between chapters, and a new CD called Let Me Sing! (out this week), Annie Ross is now making music again.

At 75, she’s still beautiful, glamorous and full of sass. Nourished by a pinspot in a pomegranate-red designer gown, singing Jimmie Lunceford’s jump tune “’Taint What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It),” she makes time stand still. And until you hear her sing an emotionally charged “Lush Life,” you haven’t lived at all. Duke Ellington used to define a successful performance as “Being in the right place at the right time, and doing the right thing before the right people.” Annie Ross did it all, and she did it before its time. Here we go again, listening and loving and learning something. But don’t take my word for it. Go directly to Danny’s some Wednesday night and you’ll see what I mean.