When Disney decided to make The Odd Life of Timothy Green, it probably shouldn’t have put the word “odd” in the title. Although I suppose it’s preferable to “weird” or “mildly creepy.”
Timothy Green is the story of a couple, Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton), who discover they’re unable to biologically bear children (it’s not clear why). In order to purge their sadness and disappointment, they write all the traits they’d most want in a child, from ability to “love and be loved” to scoring the winning goal in a soccer match, on slips of paper, put the papers in a box, and bury the box in their garden. A movie-type thunder storm ensues, and almost instantaneously, they’re delivered a 10-year old boy (C.J. Adams) who can walk and talk, as well as crack jokes like elderly Uncle Bub and musically “rock” (2 more of their requirements), but he’s a bit, well, tree-like, what with his tendency to stretch his arms wide and bask in the strong rays of the sun, and the leaves that sprout picturesquely from his calves. And like any foliage, he has a span of only so many seasons.
It took about 45 minutes to realize what movie Odd Life resembled: the opening section of Steven Spielberg’s A.I: Artificial Intelligence (from a story originated by Stanley Kubrick, although the proportions of Kubrick’s and Spielberg’s contributions are still much discussed), with Haley Joel Osment as David, the desperate-to-be-human little robot, or “mecha.” There’s even a scene that may be a conscious nod to AI, when Timothy jumps into a pool and, like David, sinks happily to the bottom–although Timothy, unlike David, presumably needs air to survive. The thing is that the whole point of AI is that David’s not-humanness makes all the the people around him uncomfortable to the point of homicide, and the audience’s confused reactions to the little unboy were very much part of the desired effect. (Although they didn’t help at the boxoffice.) In Odd Life, Timothy is meant to be not just lovable but downright angelic, and hence the creepiness factor.
While the mechas in AI exposed all the worst and most troubling aspects of the humans they met, Timothy just can’t help making everyone a little bit better: Cindy’s grouchy boss (Dianne Wiest) and her smug sister (Rosemarie DeWitt), Jim’s cold father (David Morse), and an insecure girl in Timothy’s class (Odeya Rush) are among those whose hearts grow three sizes after knowing him. Of course, Cindy and Jim themselves, through the experience of raising Timothy, are able to become even better parents to the child who follows him (that isn’t a spoiler, since the movie is told via flashback from the couple’s interview at an adoption agency).
In other hands, this could have been a worthwhile allegory (Ruby Sparks, which tells a slightly similar story, uses the premise to say something about relationships and what men want from women), and at times Odd Life feels very much like a inspirational religious fable with all the messy religion stripped out. As it is, the movie is a predictable series of scenes where one-dimensional characters are introduced with shortcomings that Timothy can cure, as he leaves this world a better place, without himself feeling any pain or even much emotion.
The remarkably fine cast (which also includes Ron Livingston, M. Emmett Walsh, Lois Smith, Shohreh Aghdashloo and Common) was perhaps drawn by writer-director Peter Hedges, whose previous films include What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and About A Boy as a screenwriter, and Pieces of April and Dan In Real Life as writer/director. The acting is mostly fine, although Garner is allowed to indulge in the stridency that’s sometimes a weakness of her performances, and she and Edgerton don’t have much chemistry as an on-screen couple. More seriously, perhaps trying to have a wider mainstream hit, Hedges’ work as a director and writer is obvious and painfully sentimental, and yet also too off-putting to appeal to families.
Sometimes the greenery that resemble trees are really just a collection of weeds.