dir: Peter Hedges
I’m all for whimsy. No, scratch that, the word alone gives me a piercing headache. What I should have said is that I’m not completely averse to sweetness in movies, because, hell, life’s way too short to just watch movies where people’s heads get routinely blown off by so-called heroes, or where a demented surgeon captures some poor folk and sows them, one to the other, in an unholy form of intelligent yet malevolent design.
The sweetness I can tolerate, not wanting to get diabetes, has to be well delivered. Too much and it drowns the viewer in treacle and regret. Too little and there’s no flavour in an otherwise unpalatable affair.
The Odd Life of Timothy Green tries to be some modern kind of fable, generously brought to us by the Disney Corporation, offering us a little sweetness within a tortured tale about a couple who desperately yearn to be parents. What it ends up being is an argument as to why some people should never be allowed to become parents, and probably a healthy argument for abortion as well.
How the hell did Joel Edgerton end up in this? Jennifer Garner, she of the perpetually sucked-in cheeks, was probably genetically created in a lab for roles like this. Her “I just escaped from a concentration camp, and I feel Fabulous!” looks and her warped-through-unnecessary-surgery face is what Disney’s Labs have been working to perfect for close to a century, thanks very much Uncle Walt. But Joel? Australia’s Own Joel Edgerton? I guess he’ll take anything.
Who am I kidding, who wouldn’t? He probably made even for this mawkish piece of tripe what it would take me over a decade to earn. Although, soulless as my work is, at least I didn’t have to emote next to Garner or mumble through terrible All American clichés with a fairly dodgy American accent.
These two chumps play the central married couple, living in an American town torn forth from a Norman Rockwell painting, all autumn leaves and idyllic hues. This place, called Stanleyville, has one source of income, being a pencil factory. This pencil factory dominates everything, including the majority of the conversations had by people in the film.
A pencil factory? As a symbol of America’s decline in blue collar jobs through the offshoring of manufacturing jobs to Mexico and China, couldn’t they have found an example slightly more pathetic and anachronistic? Maybe a whalebone corset factory, or a maker of cassette Walkmans? What else would inspire as much feeling as a goddamn pencil factory? Pencil Factory? Are you fucking kidding me? It was almost as if the film had been made with money from an actual pencil factory, wanting to inspire and guilt people into casting aside their smartphones and Ipads in order to take up the trusty wooden and graphite tool of yesteryear.
Yeah, we’ll get right on that. The framing device used to tell this awful story, which really isn’t that odd, is that Cindy and Jim Green are telling their story to a dourly disapproving woman (the great Shohreh Aghdashloo) at an adoption agency. She clearly has these two people pegged as a couple that should never be allowed to adopt a child, and she’s totally right. Cindy and Jim come across as the worst potential foster parents in the world, and the flick never disabuses us of this notion.
But no. They are here to convince the bureaucrat and us that because of some experience they had, they won’t be a risk at all.
The fade out into autumnal colours, yet again, and we’re several months in the past. Cindy and Jim are regretfully being told that they are not going to become parents through conventional or unconventional means, because it’s just not going to happen. Either, in the immortal words of Tony Montana from Scarface, her womb is so polluted, or, in no-one’s immortal words, Jim is shooting the blankiest of blanks.
They are heartbroken, and, you know what, I was too. For people who want kids, it’s a complete tragedy, the death of all their dreams, something that has to be mourned, that provokes genuine grief. Their method of doing so consists of getting boozed up and compiling a paper list of all the qualities they would have wanted to have in their perfect child. They wish so fervently for this child, that what else could the universe do but give them their wish?
The paper upon which they scrawled their pathetic wishes are placed in a wooden box, and buried in the garden, in a scene I’m not ashamed to say broke my heart, for reasons I’m not going to go into. But hark! What’s this? A localised rainstorm pours onto and around their house, and then, in the best tradition of horror flicks through the ages, this awful couple get their wish.
In a better flick, the thing that came forth from their own garden would have warped their wishes into something genuinely horrible, and punished them by punishing everyone around them, letting everyone know that Cindy and Jim’s hubris had damned them all. Instead, a boy appears, calling himself Timothy (CJ Adams), and calling them mom and dad.
Well, if some strange boy appeared out of nowhere and called you mom and/or dad, and if you were desperate for a kid, surely even then you would think there was something weird going on.
Uh, I guess not. Cindy, a truly terrible woman and potential mother-who-smothers-children-in-their-sleep, doesn’t bat an eyelid (though that might be because of botox injections). Finally, she can achieve the respectability and importance she has always craved in the eyes of her family and – I was going to say friends but I don’t remember seeing any – Stanleyville society.
Timothy, other than wanting these people to be his parents, has leaves growing out of his legs. The leaves signify to us that he’s some kind of wonderful magical child, in case we forgot, connected deeply and greenly to nature, but they’re also meant to be a reminder to Cindy and Jim that ‘their’ kid is not really of this world. They don’t care about any of this, and use his miraculous appearance as an excuse to exhibit all the worst examples of parenting that now plague the world that aren’t horrible or abusive, but which aren’t that healthy either.
I understand what they were going for: yes, yes, all new parents make mistakes with their kids, and some of their attempts at correcting those mistakes make things worse, it’s all so lovely, but all I saw is these two people, who know nothing about kids and don’t even really seem that interested in him personally, acting out all their roleplaying fantasies of what they could be like as parents to other parents. The poor mystical kid is their entry ticket, and, once they think they’ve entered into the VIP lounge, all they want is to use him to magnify themselves in the disinterested eyes of others.
Cindy and Jim are the worst parents in the flick, but all the other examples of parents being abusive, self-aggrandising or just wrongheaded are saying what, ultimately? That most of us are shitty parents? That we use our kids as bargaining chips or to make up for the gaping voids in our own souls by pretending that our lives now have meaning they couldn’t have otherwise? I’m not going to disagree with that, but, honestly, as refreshing as it is to hear such a powerful message from a Disney movie, it’s an absolute chore to sit through.
An absolute chore, make no mistake. The performances in this flick, with the exception of the actual kid, are thoroughly detestable. Everyone is awful and no-one is spared, no-one acts believably even in the context of what is really a fantasy flick, there’s no pacing or point to speak of, which means you’re watching sections of crappiness for which it’s unsure whether you’re going to get any temporary reprieve along the way, and even the framing device highlights the absurdity of everything we’ve watched.
Timothy “touches” the hearts of everyone in the flick, but we never see how or why. He makes an old man laugh himself to death, but we never find out why, since they “montage” over the joke. An older girl latches onto Timothy and somehow falls in love with him, but she barely even exists as a character, and no explanation survives as to who she is other than a) some girl who likes Timothy, b) she has a birthmark, c) she’s a girl. And what was with the bizarre psychosexual jealousy / animosity Cindy exhibits towards this girl? What was going on there?
Not that interesting, not going to go there.
The “story” they’re telling to the adoption bureaucrat should really be getting a restraining order drafted, in the background, forbidding this couple from ever being allowed near kids, let alone plants. Instead, we are meant to believe, even if everything they told about their experiences was true, that this somehow means they’re qualified to adopt a child, an actual human child, when these bureaucrats should be asking the far more salient question of “So, where’s that child everyone saw you with a couple of months ago?” instead of “so how many kids can we put in your care?”
That dog won’t hunt, Monsignor. These characters are monsters, and, like this film, must be destroyed or forgotten, whichever is easier. Possibly the later.
Avoid with extreme prejudice.
2 questions as to why Cindy and Jim aren’t prosecuted for murder when Timothy disappears at the end out of 10
“Please don’t ask about my leaves” – don’t mention the war, either – The Odd Life of Timothy Green