Odd Life Lacks Life

(The Odd Life of Timothy Green; 2012; Written by Peter Hedges and Ahmet Zappa; Directed by Peter Hedges;  Starring Jennifer Garner, Joel Edgerton, CJ Adams and Odeya Rush)

The hardest part of writing a family movie today is incarnating conflict.   I’m not really sure in which of our many societal dysfunctions this problem originates.  Certainly, the damned political correctness has wreaked havoc in storytelling such that nobody wants to depict anything for kids that might upset them.  Further, nobody wants to create an evil character that might give off a whiff of racism, or sexism, or ageism, or classicism, or you know, the one I’m always fighting off, the bigoted disgust for brown-eyed-second generation Sicilian-post-graduated-Rhode Islandish-Emily Dickinsonianism.

So, fear has reduced most family movies today to being a bit soft without characters suffering the real devastation that would provide a catharsis of fear and pity the way stories are supposed to.  Ours is a storytelling climate in which Old Yeller, never ever dying, would be “Senior” Yeller and Bambi’s mother would be presented in her golden years masticating genetically sweetened soft grass in a harmonious animal-human habitat at The Villages.  (Of course, I’m exempting Pixar films from this.  Their excellence always complicates sweeping generalities about the failure of storytelling in Hollywood.)

The Odd Life of Timothy Green has no villain except the infertility which is its set up.  (This is the second movie – with Juno – in which talented Jennifer Garner convinces us that she is desperate, desperate, nearly dying to have a baby.  One more time, and Garner and her lefty husband Ben Affleck are simply going to have to declare themselves pro-life.)  Once the story has finally launched (a not unpleasant, but still slow fifteen minutes into the movie), there is no real conflict except the Green’s efforts to dodge the confused appraisal of their extended family and friends.  It’s a story in which two beautiful and completely sympathetic actors –  Garner and Joel Edgerton -  make a show of struggling against their own unbelievable fears of not being good enough parents.  They are kind and gifted, loving and dutiful, connected to an amiable and solicitous community, and in possession of a fabulous Victorian farmhouse.  I kept wanting to take them aside and say, “Guys, maybe our expectations are just a bit too high?”  You know a story is having conflict problems when the B-story is completely resolved by having the protagonist invent a better kind of pencil.  (Yes, that’s really real in the movie.)

Beyond a half-hearted father-son issue and, oh yeah, the pencil factory might close, the only real conflict in the movie has to do with a ticking clock of Timothy losing his leaves, which we intuit early on means that he will soon have to go back to being a tomato root.  But he doesn’t seem particularly dismayed about that fate, so there’s no real sense of jeopardy.  And no one is really in doubt that the Green’s will be amazing parents when they get the chance that we know is coming the first time we see them in the adoption agency.  The lack of conflict makes Odd Life drag.

Beyond the lack of conflict, the oddest thing in the movie is the way it expects the viewers to ignore the fundamental oddness of the inciting incident in order to just go with the rest of the movie.  We’ve seen lots of these impossible premise movies before – Freaky Friday, Prelude to a Kiss, Pinocchio, Big – but most of them do much better at getting us through the suspension of disbelief

 The Odd Life of Timothy Green puts us in the uncomfortable place of an adoption agency worker, played uncomfortably by the great actress, Shoreh Agdashloo, while Garner and Edgerton dump their whole crazy past year experience with a mystical child grown out of the garden, in convenient but episodic flashbacks.  They have no explanation for how the boy came to be.  Nor why nobody in their town or family raised any questions about the boy’s origins.  They ask Timothy once how he came to crawl out of their tomato patch, but when he demurs, they never trouble the topic again.  The incredulity surrounding the origin of Timothy is only trumped in the movie by the fact that Agdashlo’s character entrusts them with another child at the end.  “Really?!  Based on the story you’ve just heard, these people are lovely, dutiful, beautiful whackos!”  Beyond just allowing the story to jump around in time, the adoption agency frame is certainly meant to provide some conflict in the story.  It mainly just feels awkward and the cutaways are the hardest part to watch.  Which is a dubious kind of conflict generation, I suppose.

The writer and director, Peter Hedges, knows better than a lot of the clichés and beginner mistakes that are in this movie.  He brought us Gilbert Grape and the charming About a Boy, as well as the more uneven but still engaging Dan in Real Life.  (Although, Pieces of April was a navel-gazing blunder. )  He’s been around the cinematic story block enough to have done better here.  It made me wonder how much tinkering the project went through under the fearful supervision of paranoid producers and Disney executives.  (And, yes, I know I keep adding that qualification, but recent life has taught me that no good work of art will go through Hollywood today unpunished.)  And Disney has no excuse for making conflict-less twaddle.  Their executives should be sentenced to watching their whole library once through before making another movie.

For me, the best part of the movie was getting to watch the big screen debut of fourteen year old Israeli actress, Odeya Rush.  Odeya has “it” and eats up the screen every time she is on it, even as her character in Timothy Green is weirdly drawn and without much to do.  Full disclosure is that Odeya has been cast as the lead in Mary Mother of Christ, a project on which I believe I am the co-writer.  It is cool and a relief that our Mary is in the hands of an actress with “it.”

The nice things about this movie are the good performances of the talented group of actors and supporting actors, married to the fantasy vision of quaint, small town life which backdrops the story.  Beyond story problems, there’s nothing objectionable in the piece, and junior high kids and their parents will find some nice moments here to enjoy together.  But be prepared to lapse into the lame grin of the pleasant non-threatened filmgoer.  No pain, no gain.

  • mft

    After two disappointments in a row, Cars 2 and Brave, so much for Pixar’s “excellence”…

    • barbaranicolosi

      MFT – What was so bad about Brave? I thought it was brilliant.

      • mft

        As for its problems story-wise, I think Michael Medved pretty much nailed it (HERE, just a minute), although his finding it “creepy” confirms what you wrote on the first paragraph of the post. But the movie lost me early on, with the feminist overtones (not sure it’s the right word, since it gets in the way of the story in an open way). In that sequence with the heroine’s first act of rebellion against her obnoxious suitors when she outperforms them in various sports, did you notice the way the filmmakers chose to depict it visually? With one of the boys throwing an arrow, and then in slow motion the heroine’s “female” arrow penetrating the “male” arrow from the rear end and ripping it apart. Weird stuff for a Pixar movie… After seeing that, the moment when the plot device of turning the mother into a bear came up, I realized it was, besides a bad storytelling decision as Medved explains in his review, just an excuse to have the mother kill the “magical” or “cursed” (can’t remember…) bear at the end after her buffoon husband is rendered unable to do so.
        What makes me sad is that now Pixar seems to have become a glorified Dreamworks. All that bellyaching about Pixar being “too conservative” because of the traditional storytelling traits and some politically incorrect stuff in its movies became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

        • barbaranicolosi

          If I can ever get to it, I’ll write a spirited defense of Brave. I actually thought its anti-feminist undertones were what damned the film for so many secular critics. Think again of the power of the queen to civilize the barbaric males. I thought the opposition of courage to pride was the most brilliant and philosophically advanced theme Pixar has ever played out – with the possible exception of the male-female complementarity thing in Wall-E. And the look of Brave was so gorgeous I spent much of the movie just grinning at the glory.

  • Jude

    While I can see all your points, and I agree that there is no really palpable villain in the movie, I completely disagree with the title of your post. I thoroughly enjoyed the film and story. I never felt it drag and it was so full of life; I’ve recommended it to all of my friends. (I’m in my mid-twenties) I do enjoy a good tragic movie, however The Odd Life is so heartfelt and beautiful in its simplicity. I cried, and I thought only books (and The Passion) could do that. I found it really easy to suspend disbelief, and my family is constantly annoyed at my analysis of most movies and even commercials. Anyway, nice analysis. If I hadn’t enjoyed the film so thoroughly, I wouldn’t say anything. Have a blessed Sunday!

    • barbaranicolosi

      I also felt the movie was heartfelt and that redeemed a lot of its cliches for me. Still, in the panoply of children/family movies, where The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music and The Incredibles are near the top of heap, this one, as a work of cinematic storytelling, can not seriously be reckoned great or even very good. Do you see that?

  • Linda

    This could have been a cute movie, along the lines of “It’s a Wonderful Life” if Timothy had actually been sent by God to teach valuable lessons to the parents. Instead, in true Hollywood fashion, he comes from Mother Nature and returns to nature when his job is done. There is no need of God in Hollywood but they are so good at pushing the ‘green’ agenda which was very obvious in this story. That being said, it was still a movie I could watch with my daughter without plugging ears or covering eyes! It led to a good discussion afterwards on how Hollywood pushes their agenda while pushing God aside.

  • http://www.patrickcoffin.net Patrick Coffin

    If only I could have stopped crying at a conflictless movie. (Insert question mark and “lol”). Color me naive, but I found “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” to express, albeit imperfectly, a uniquely Catholic vision of fertility as a great good and of children as the “fruit and ultimate crown of marriage” per Gaudium et spes 48, It’s also a straightforward depiction of life’s fragility and brevity. Mr. Hedge’s melancholic “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” left me cold despite Sven Nykvist’s warm cinematography. “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” is a tiger of a different stripe. I could. Not. Believe. How the arrival of a new child was being depicted — Walt Disney, for a the moment, has surely slowed down his grave spin velocity.

    A devoutly Catholic writer/director almost certainly could not have made a movie like this. While I share Barbara’s allergy to cinematic cliche and banality, I confess to have been tearfully carried forward by “Odd Life’s” deceptively gentle wave. No doubt this is conditioned by six years of fervent prayer to have more little hearts to love. Maybe it’s just me, but I find infertility to be a fearsome beast of a villain.

    • barbaranicolosi

      “a uniquely Catholic vision of fertility”
      I must have missed that class not having, you know, gone to Steubenville. It was a Senior Seminar, no doubt: “‘Thou art Dirt’: Making Babies in the Garden of the Domestic Church”? (wicked gurgle)

      I agree that infertility was the dark shadow underlying the tale. But for a tale to be really gripping, you have to have a threat that is as close to you as right under your skin and also right at the end of your fingertips. Still, I too enjoyed the piece, but I wish they had had a few more story meetings with some folks who could have addressed the problems. It would have raised the level of the project considerably.