Thursday, January 24, 2013

A True Son of the Soil



THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN

Oh, how one is loath to go after a film that obviously had its heart in the right place.  The Odd Life of Timothy Green, at least to me, was less about Timothy Green as he spread his earthy wisdom to everyone he met, and more about his parents.  Said parents seemed to be desperate for a child, but one wonders what kind of parents they would actually make given how high-strung, neurotic, even self-centered they turn out be.

Told in flashbacks to an unbelieving adoption agency head, we begin with Jim (Joel Edgerton) and Cindy Green (Jennifer Garner).  They are desperate for a child but are unable to conceive.  Devastated, they soon somewhat drunkenly start writing the attributes their hoped-for child would have had: a sense of humor, honest to a fault, artistic, scoring the winning goal in the championship game.

A side note: I kept getting the sense that I was watching a child-geared variation on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf minus the drunkenness and hateful manner of George and Martha with Jim and Cindy's ideas of their 'son', but I digress.

In any case, they bury their 'wish list' in a box out in the backyard.  That dark and stormy night, there's an intruder, and they find to their amazement a ten-year-old calling himself Timothy (CJ Adams).  Minus the leaves growing from his ankles he is a regular child.  Since he insists on calling them "Mom" and "Dad", this once-childless couple now introduce him to their families.  You have Cindy's sister Brenda (Rosemary DeWitt) and her snobbish family, her Uncle and Aunt Bub and Mel (M. Emmett Walsh and Lois Smith), and Jim's distant father Big Jim (David Morse).

In the course of The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Timothy goes on to fulfill all of Jim and Cindy's wishes, albeit not exactly in the way they had hoped or imagined.  At school, Timothy finds himself either romancing or falling in love with Joni (Odeya Rush), this Goth-like teen who has her own 'deformity'.   However, life even for a magical child like Timothy is fleeting. 
The town is dying.  Jim's job at a pencil factory is at risk of being cut by the owner's son, Franklin Crudstaff (Ron Livingston), as is Cindy's job as a tour guide for the local museum run by the fearsome Mrs. Bernice Crudstaff (Dianne Weist).  Timothy continues to go about spreading his magic, up to helping Jim create a new type of pencil made entirely out of leaves. 

Well, Timothy does indeed fulfill all his parent's hopes and dreams, and also manages to save the town (although Jim had to stand up for himself when Crudstaff attempted to take credit for his invention).  However, now that all the goals had been met, Timothy informs his parents that his job is basically done and he goes away.  Now we're back to where we started, and in the end, Jim and Cindy have a new child thanks to that adoption agent, Ms. Evette Onat (Shoreh Aghdashloo).

The more I think on The Odd Life of Timothy Green, the more horrifying it becomes.  I don't think that director Peter Hedges' screenplay from a story by Ahmed Zappa (that's right, Ahmed Zappa) had this in mind, but the message I got from Timothy Green is that children are only as important as their parents think they are.  Here's what I mean: this couple wants children, or at least A child.  When they manage through miraculous circumstances to get one, the child is there only to fulfill what THEY want him to (be artistic, musical, honest to a fault, score the winning goal).  Timothy is there, fully formed, and once he checked off all that his parents had asked of him, he can go. 

It strikes me as almost cruel to have Timothy leave (no pun intended) as soon as 'his job was done'.  He's not the Lone Ranger you know.  It's as if Timothy had no real right to exist outside his parents' expectations. 

Even worse, once Jim and Cindy GET a child, their behavior makes helicoptering parenting even more obscene.  Cindy's perpetually fretting over Timothy, wanting to keep him safe from all harm.  Jim is at turns more laid back and pushy.  Take when they take him for his first day of school.  Cindy overpacks his backpack with far too much (she mentions she put toilet paper...just in case).  Jim, who doesn't really object to her hyper-paranoia, tells Timothy to have a good day.  When she tells him this may be too much pressure for their son, he calls out to Timothy, "Have the day you have".   However, when on his first day the clueless Timothy was a victim of bullying by Crudstaff's own children and Timothy refusing to give names, Jim all but urges him to fight.

Again, Jim insists he doesn't want to be the father Big Jim was to him, but despite his protests Jim seems to be pushy, even slightly bullying to Timothy.  He pushes the soccer coach (rap star Common) to get Timothy to play because it is written Timothy will score the winning goal in the championship game.  Timothy, ever clueless, appears happy being the waterboy, but Jim and Cindy keep prodding both Coach Cal and Timothy to live up to THEIR expectations.  Jim has Timothy practice kicking the ball around apparently whenever possible, and when circumstances allow for Timothy to be played, the whole scene is actually quite horrifying.

On one hand, Coach Cal insists on telling Timothy to just stand there (so as to not cause any trouble and have the required players on the field).  In other words, we're suppose to believe that a coach would be encouraging a child to not play (and send the subliminal message that he's rather worthless). On the other,  Jim keeps pushing Timothy to actually start moving and participating, with him and Cindy telling all that Timothy will rise to expectations. 

To me, the messages are so mixed.  We're suppose to believe Jim wants to be a better dad to Timothy than Big Jim was to him, but Jim doesn't seem to care that Timothy in his blissful ignorance is happy or that perhaps all the practicing in the world won't help.  Rather than let Timothy find his own interests, Timothy HAS to improve his soccer skills because "it is written".  Jim appears to be just as bad a father as Big Jim appeared to be (Big Jim doesn't shrink from throwing a dodgeball at Timothy's head while his 'grandson' literally is soaking up the sun's rays).  In other words, should Timothy had stayed, one wonders whether Jim would have been a pushy father.

Cindy is no better, constantly fretting about her little son, worrying over him doing such things as riding on a bike with a girl.  The male is veering dangerously close to being a bully, the female likewise desperate to turn Timothy into a wimp.  Seeing how they are with this child, I wouldn't have let them near another child, as if their story wouldn't have already made them look like a couple of nutjobs. 

I kept thinking that Garner and Edgerton (two actors better than their material) thought that as well.  I'll give them credit: they gave it a good try, but the end result didn't show them as loving parents but as near-unstable.  Weist is wasted as the frumpy, grumpy, one-note Mrs. Crudstaff, but it is nice to see Livingston (who gained fame for Office Space) doing his version of Bill Lumbergh.  I'm not sure he ever asked Jim to come in on a Sunday, but Livingston came as close to spoofing his cult film and his nemesis in it as I've ever seen him.

The worst sin The Odd Life of Timothy Green commits is what it does to poor Shohreh Aghdashloo.  When you get someone of her caliber in a film, you don't have her popping in at intervals to merely react to the nonsense Jim and Cindy are telling her. Give her something to do!   

I know that The Odd Life of Timothy Green is meant to be a heartwarming little family picture, but how do you sympathize with parents as selfish as the Greens or with an elementary school child as naive (or dumb) who seems to be romantically involved with someone who both looks older and has a harder edge?  It's certainly a nice try, but I'd say I can only go Green up to a point.

Here Comes the Sun...
     

DECISION: C-

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