Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Odd Life of Timothy Green: A delicate bloom

The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: PG, and needlessly, for mild (and fleeting) profanity
By Derrick Bang

Peter Hedges makes delightfully idiosyncratic films about socially awkward and mildly eccentric characters somewhat out of step with the real world: people not quite in synch with the rest of us, and unable to figure out how to bridge that divide.

Rather perplexed by the ivy-esque leaves that appear to be fastened
to the lower legs of the mysterious boy (Cameron "CJ" Adams) who
entered their lives as in answer to a prayer, Cindy (Jennifer Garner)
and Jim (Joel Edgerton, far right) bring the little guy to a horticulturist
(Lin-Manuel Miranda). He offer to clip off the leaves ... a suggestion
that we just know is misguided.
Hedges doesn’t work quickly; he came to our attention back in 1993, when he adapted his own novel, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, for director Lasse Hallström. He followed that with adaptations of two books by other authors — Jane Hamilton’s A Map of the World and Nick Hornby’s About a Boy (the latter earning Hedges an Academy Award nomination) — before taking the director’s chair for his next project, 2003’s Pieces of April.

Aside from giving Katie Holmes her best role to date — and bringing co-star Patricia Clarkson an Oscar nomination for supporting actress — Pieces of April established Hedges as a writer/director with a fondness for wayward souls, and a solid sense of the way people interact with each other. His next project, the 2007 romantic comedy Dan in Real Life, remains my favorite Steve Carell film.

All of which brings us to the aptly titled The Odd Life of Timothy Green, a delicate, poignant little fantasy that I suspect will have trouble finding an audience during these noisy, action-oriented summer months. Timothy Green feels like a story that might have been spun by the Brothers Grimm, were they among us today; this is a fairy tale with a gentle message, and characters whose lives are changed by the intervention of a supernatural being straight out of wish-fulfillment dreams.

The story is credited to Ahmet Zappa, a low-profile actor making an intriguing writing debut; Hedges directed and supplied the script. The result is whimsical, charming and completely preposterous ... and that latter attribute is somewhat at odds with Hedges’ traditional strengths.

Because this narrative can’t possibly take place in our world, despite his insistence that it’s doing precisely that.

Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) live in the small town of Stanleyville, known as “the pencil capital of the world.” Unfortunately, the growing proliferation of computers, iPhones and the like have greatly diminished the demand for pencils, and plant employees keep expecting manager Franklin Crudstaff (Ron Livingston) to announce cutbacks and layoffs.

On a more intimate level, Cindy and Jim have tried for years to have children, to no avail. After exhausting the final medical options, they quietly mourn over a bottle of wine and contemplate the child they might have had, jotting personality traits and various stray thoughts onto slips of paper. This heartbreaking process concludes when they gather all the slips into a small box, and bury it — with their shattered hopes — in Cindy’s vegetable garden.

Cue a mysterious storm, which somehow dumps rain only on their house. Blasted awake by the downpour, Cindy and Jim are astonished to discover a muddy, naked but oddly cheerful adolescent boy in their house. He introduces himself as Timothy (Cameron “CJ” Adams): the name they would have given a son.

And — oh, yes — the boy has ivy-esque leaves on both his legs, just above the ankles. And they’re attached quite firmly.

Cindy and Jim adjust to this newcomer’s arrival rather swiftly, all things considered; the tone is set when they decide that Timothy must be “meant” for them. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, and so forth. Besides, the kid is an ingenuous little charmer ... and the leaves can be covered with long socks.

What follows (ahem) takes a leaf from the Pollyanna template, with a “magic child” bringing positive change not only to his new parents, but also Stanleyville at large: everybody from grumpy Ms. Crudstaff (Dianne Wiest), Cindy’s boss at the tiny Stanleyville Museum; to Joni (Odeya Rush), an exotic, slightly older girl who views herself as “different,” just like Timothy.

He IS an odd duck, and not just for the obvious reasons known only by Cindy and Jim. Timothy arrives with the awareness and intelligence of a typical adolescent, but without much in the way of social skills; he therefore becomes an easy target for Franklin Crudstaff’s bratty sons. The story’s gentle humor derives from Cindy and Jim’s hapless, hopeless efforts at spontaneous parenthood, along with the impact that the guileless Timothy has on most adults.

Many of these interactions are charming, in great part because Adams is such a sweet, radiant presence; Hedges draws just the right blend of naturalism and otherworldliness from his young star. The three-way dynamic between Adams, Garner and Edgerton also is handled well. As she demonstrated in Juno and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Garner has a smooth facility for light comedy, particularly when her lines have a touch of bite.

Similarly, the scenes between Adams and Rush feel just right, as Timothy and Joni stumble their way into a friendship that — maybe, perhaps — might blossom into something more. The Israeli-born Rush is strikingly exotic, which is appropriate for Joni’s role as an outsider, and the two children bond in a manner that looks and sounds authentic ... and is too sweet for words.

Unfortunately, Hedges doesn’t take equal care with this story’s other key players. Rosemarie DeWitt, co-starring as Cindy’s sister, Brenda, struggles upstream against the demands of this character’s bitchy, condescending behavior. I’ve no idea why Brenda is such a passive/aggressive shrew, and neither does Hedges; he never takes that subplot anywhere.

The entire film unfolds as an extended flashback, as told by Jim and Cindy to a dubious adoption agent (Shohreh Aghdashloo). This framing device, anchored even more firmly in our real world, doesn’t work at all; every time Hedges cuts back to this office, with Jim and Cindy supplying the next improbable detail, we’re completely ripped away from the fragile nuances of the core narrative.

Finally, Jim has issues with his father (David Morse), a bullying “man’s man” whose approach to a friendly game of dodge ball qualifies as child abuse: a miscalculation from which his character never recovers. We also don’t get sufficient closure to the estranged relationship between these two men.

Hedges apparently expects us to be so enchanted by this story’s premise, and by Timothy himself — and the slowly developing crisis signaled by increasingly ominous undertones in Geoff Zanelli’s score — that we’ll overlook all these other pesky details.

I wish I could say that were true, because there’s much to admire about The Odd Life of Timothy Green. It’s not easy to pull off this sort of fantasy, and Hedges comes achingly close at times. In the final analysis, though, this film is less than the sum of its often beguiling parts. When such material misses, it collapses beneath overly soggy sentiment ... and that, sadly, is the disappointing feeling that I suspect will accompany most viewers, as they depart the theater.

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