The Odd Life of Timothy Green works best as an all-ages movie, one that had to be simplified to appeal to a younger audience as well as the adult crowd taking the kids to see it, but that process of simplification went too far to make the film interesting or compelling on an entirely-adult level. Granted, there’s a market for movies that are strictly for kids, but the best films for kids are those that still resonate for older audiences, something that Odd Life fails to do.
A childless couple, Cynthia (Jennifer Garner, also known as Sydney Bristow) and Jim (Joel Edgerton, who was superb in a supporting role in Animal Kingdom), are telling the story to two adoption officials to explain why they would be suitable candidates to adopt a child. (The lead official is played by Iranian-American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, who might have one of the five best voices in Hollywood.) After learning that, for reasons unstated to us, they will be unable to have children of their own. In a wine-fueled attempt at closure, they write the list of traits their ideal child would have had on sheets torn off a tiny notepad, place those sheets in a small jewelry or cigarbox, and bury it in their garden. That night, with the help of a highly localized thunderstorm, a ten-year-old boy named Timothy appears in their house, calling them Mom and Dad … and bearing leaves on his lower legs. No one seems to ask too many questions about how this couple suddenly are parents to a fully-formed child, nor is anyone all that concerned with the slightly odd things that seem to happen when he’s around. Best not to ask too many questions if you realize you’re participating in someone else’s fable.
The movie spends most of its 100 minutes dancing on the line between sweet and maudlin, and it tends a little much toward the latter. Its best moments involve Timothy acting with almost Zen-like calm when faced with others, mostly adults but occasionally children, who attempt to take out their misery on him, only to find his demeanor immutable. The one who won’t change, the blatantly sleazy and absurdly named Franklin Crudstaff, scion of the family that own’s the pencil factory that provides the bulk of employment in the town, gets his compeuppance in the end in an overly pat, sentimental scene where his own mother sells him down the river. Even when you want to like what’s going on on-screen, there’s an element of empty calories to the story that, for me, spoiled my ability to suspend my disbelief even for a few minutes.
The main problem I had with Timothy Green, in the film’s own terms, is that he had one leaf too many. The various anecdotes that add up to Timothy’s odd life are all so abbreviated that even the best-explained one, involving Timothy’s artsy sort-of-girlfriend Joni, remains fairly shallow – again, easier for the single-digit portion of the audience to follow, but very unsatisfying for their parents. Cynthia’s sister, played to annoying shrillness by Rosemarie Dewitt, is the caricature of an overbearing soccer mom, making frequent digs at her sister and at Timothy’s oddness, apparently masking some inner sadness or emptiness that is never explained. Dianne Wiest is wasted as a one-note character, Franklin’s humorless mother; she’s great, but this is sort of like asking Linus Torvalds to help you change your computer’s wallpaper. The script only gave the meaty roles to Garner and Edgerton, who do their best with somewhat stock characters, and I called every plot twist before it happened, not just because the setups were obvious but because the film couldn’t progress in any other direction.
Foremost among those obvious points was the fact that Timothy Green had to die. Without that – and his death is portrayed as a disappearance on screen, which should be minimally traumatic for younger viewers – the film would devolve from fable to pure fantasy: A childless couple gets the perfect child and they live happily ever after. With Timothy working against the clock, it’s easier to interpret the film on an adult level as a classic if slightly hoary fable – our time is finite, whether we’re referring to our lives or to specific relationships, and we don’t know how long we have, so we need to make the most of it by making other people happier.
Odeya Rush, playing Joni, stood out as an actress to watch both for her performance and because she’s going to grow up to be a stunner. Lin-Manuel Miranda (was completely wasted as the nerdy (and perhaps gay?) gardening expert who makes just two brief appearances in the film, although even a brief cameo from the man who wrote and sang “Silent E is a Ninja” makes any film better. Both are exactly what The Odd Life of Timothy Green needed more of – charismatic actors whose characters didn’t get enough screen time because the script called for Timothy to get involved in one or two stories too many for the movie’s run time. It’s appropriate for kids but I’m afraid there isn’t enough here to engage their parents.
Next up: I saw Looper last night and really enjoyed it. I’ll shoot to get that review up in 24 hours, before Arizona Fall League insanity starts on Tuesday.