'The Odd Life of Timothy Green': Genuinely Heartwarming
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
There are many, I suppose, who will automatically turn their noses up at even the mention of "The Odd Life of Timothy Green," the new Disney film directed and written by Peter Hedges. Would-be parents Jim and Cindy Green (Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Garner) are informed that despite taking great measures and incurring "great expense," they simply can't have kids. While fast-forwarding through the stages of grief, they write down all the things they would have liked their hypothetical future child to be and to do: "Funny, like Uncle Bub." "To love, and to be loved." Then, they put the papers in a box and bury it in the garden. And that night, during a storm ...
It all sounds rather cutesy, but I assure you, it is not. And while this may sound like a slender string from which to hang a film, Hedges spins it out and weaves it into a fable of love and life, told with real insight, warm humor and excellent filmmaking. And so young Timothy Green (CJ Adams, in a pitch-perfect kid performance neither cold nor cloying) comes to join his new mom and dad, born from muck and already 10 years old with leaves on his shins. He's a miracle from out of nowhere that Jim and Cindy still get to raise like their own child -- which is to say, badly, making plenty of mistakes. Much of the comedic tone of "Timothy Green," then, can be summed up as "magical realism vs. helicopter parenting," as fate and sorcery gives Jim and Cindy a child to love, which they then promptly smother and over-protect out of skittish, nervy love. (The film would also make a good double bill with the also-excellent "Ruby Sparks," with both depicting in their way the realities of getting your dream.)
Hedges has a good ear, eye and heart for the messier ways of family. "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" was based on one of his novels, while he himself created and directed the excellent, ungainly "Pieces of April." His film is full of great actors, and not just Edgerton and Garner, who hit the right mystified-but-happy tone here, or Adams' nicely handled tuning of a part that could have become pixie-ish and sticky. He's also got names like Shohreh Aghdashloo, David Morse, M. Emmet Walsh, Dianne Wiest, Rosemarie DeWitt and Ron Livingston in the mix, and they help make up one of the film's better, gentler ideas. They establish how kids need parents and communities, yes, but also that kids are what make parents and communities. And eventually, we learn about the Book of Ecclesiastes and how to everything there is a season, and how every bare-limbed fall means a new season of growth coming soon.
The warm and welcome look of the film comes from cinematographer John Toll, whose excellence is as evident here as it was shooting "The Thin Red Line" or "Vanilla Sky." The universe of the film is both American and oddly Dickensian (the local pencil factory is owned by the Crudstaff family), and the film's mix of sincerity and an always-appropriate level of skepticism from the surrounding characters is also nicely calibrated. The film could have obsessed about the nature (or, rather, super-nature) of Timothy's origins, or relied on CGI-leaf visual "magic," but it instead keeps things simple and practical, more romantic than fantastic, more Spielberg than Bay and thus more charming than creepy. (Cut this film differently and tilt the camera 10 degrees, it's not a heartwarming fable; it's a prequel to "Swamp Thing.")
In an age when so many of our supposedly simple pleasures are glib, sleekly commercial simulations, something as well-made and well-intentioned as this movie fairly glows with real health and vitality and true emotion. If you're up for having your heart warmed by a film, and have the patience to go on its short but sweet journey, "The Odd Life of Timothy Green" is truly a family fable for all ages.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.