Generally, the term “family film” implies a movie that is mostly aimed at children but with adult considerations running underneath it. Peter Hedges’ new film The Odd Life of Timothy Green seems like it should be one of these efforts in the familiar live-action Disney mold but it contains almost nothing for a child to enjoy.
Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton play a married couple who live in an enormous house that would appear to be at odds with the film’s motif of recession-stricken small town America. Jim (Edgerton) works at the pencil factory that is the town’s main employer and Cindy (Garner) is a tour guide at the hamlet’s tourist attraction, the pencil museum. They very much want to have a child but are unable, though the exact science behind why is not made clear (this is a family film, after all!). One night, they decide the way to move past their sad fate is to write down all the things they would want their kid to be and then bury those things in the garden. That night, it rains and suddenly there is a boy named Timothy possessed of all the traits Cindy and Jim articulated in their frenzied, quarter of a bottle of wine-fueled fantasy session.
Immediately, the film’s themes become clear. Trying to anticipate or force exactly what your child will be is a bad move for parents but that’s forgivable because all parents make that mistake, as well as a whole bunch of others. The thing is to become better at child-rearing by learning from those errors and being adaptable. These ideas are likely to resonate with the parents in the audience but not with their children. Hedges had an opportunity to tell the reverse side of the story as well; to advise kids that even though their parents do things they shouldn’t, they love them and are merely human. Sadly, he blows it.
Not only is Timothy Green thematically weighted toward the adults, its narrative is lopsided too. We spend so much time inside Jim and Cindy’s heads as they struggle with themselves, it’s not difficult to imagine a child in the audience becoming very bored. Actually, it’s not hard to imagine anyone being bored by this film but that’s a larger problem. The character of Timothy is weird in a way that’s not relatable (unlike in this weekend’s far better release, ParaNorman) and behaves more like some sort of therapeutic alien than a real kid. There are almost no other young characters with the exception of a girl who befriends Timothy but she is underwritten at best.
The adult cast contains an impressive list of names. In addition to Garner and Edgerton, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Rosemarie DeWitt, David Morse, M. Emmet Walsh, Dianne Wiest, Ron Livingston and James Rebhorn all appear in the movie. They also all appear to be trying very hard in the movie, perhaps attempting to make up for Hedges’ shortcomings both as a director and screenwriter (credit for the story goes to Ahmet Zappa). It’s a little embarrassing to see so many talented performers straining so hard to make do with so little.
Maybe the most cringe-inducing example of this is when the wonderful Dianne Wiest attempts to triumphantly sell one of the film’s climactic lines. That line is, “If this boy can have leaves on his legs then we can make a pencil out of leaves!” Technically, those words make a little more sense in context than they do to you now but they still sound just as awkward and stupid. That just about sums up The Odd Life of Timothy Green: coherent but dumb.