Monday, August 13, 2012

The Odd Life of Timothy Green

Disney draws a big fat bullseye on the fast-growing infertile-couple demographic with this airless misfire. Cindy (Garner) and Jim (Edgerton) Green, an idealized if slightly careworn early-middle-aged couple, have tried for years to have a child of their own. The night they give up, they succumb to the fantasy of what might have been, writing down all the attributes they wished for in their imaginary child and then putting them all in a box they bury in their garden. While they sleep, a magical storm soaks the garden and Timothy (Adams), the boy of their dreams, emerges, gazing at them with limpid eyes. After a moment or two of disbelief, the two slip into the roles he assigns them, becoming Timothy’s mom and dad and learning how difficult actual parenting can be. “We made lots of mistakes,” says Jim. “We made mistakes trying to fix our mistakes,” says Cindy. “Isn’t that what makes you a parent?” says Jim.

That’s a great setup for a filmmaker with a light touch and a gift for deadpan surrealism (I’d love to see what Pedro Almodovar could have done with it), but Peter Hedges (About a Boy, Pieces of April, Dan in Real Life) remains resolutely somber and moralistic, leaching the premise of nearly all its magic. No sooner have tinkly piano and aerial shots of golden leaves cued the arrival of something really, really special over the opening credits than the main characters start telling us that they’re about to start telling us a story, listing all their take-away points in advance (“like every good story, this one starts with a dream”) like a clumsy Power Point presentation. Golden-hour footage and Celebration City-style art direction makes even a family picnic look like a Martha Stewart production idealize the Green’s tiny town in knee-jerk Disney style, even though that nostalgia for an America that never actually existed fights the screenplay’s message about reality being a lot messier than fantasy. One-trait supporting characters might as well be cartoons: the rich old man who owns the pencil factory where practically every working adult in the town toils away looks alarmingly like The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns. And things the filmmakers want us to remember are always repeated at least once, like the signs the camera lingers on that advertise the soon-to-be-obsolete pencil factory or protest its much-discussed layoffs.

The factory subplot takes up a lot of time without ever really going anywhere, until a gimmicky happy ending ties it back to Timothy. Meanwhile, this unflappable old soul lives out all the attributes and accomplishments his parents put in the box, ticking through the list with a mechanical inevitability that makes the moral feel more important than the story. Jim and Cindy are all too fallible as parents, but Timothy never seems less than perfect, even when he delivers the klutziness they ordered up as a series of endearing bloopers.

Ruby Sparks, another movie in theaters now, begins with a nearly identical idea and does something much more interesting with it. This time, the person who materializes through the power of longing is a girlfriend. She’s conjured up by Calvin, a geeky writer whose control-freak tendencies have isolated him from almost everyone else. Like the Greens, Calvin learns the hard way about the messiness and unpredictability of real relationships, but that’s where the similarity ends. Calvin’s constant questioning of his own sanity, his ultimate horror at the control he has over his creation, and the funny, emotionally honest situations they keep getting into make Ruby Sparks as imperfect but endearing as its often difficult characters, while The Odd Life of Timothy Green feels as unreal as that eerily perfect little boy.

Written for Slant

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