A loving couple who are unable to bear their own children imagine all the wonderful traits their offspring would possess and, drunk on equal parts wine and heartbreak, write down those traits, tuck them in a box, and bury them in their garden. It’s their attempt to finally lay to rest their dreams of having a little one, and it’s meant to be the final word on their journey to parenthood. And then something apparently magical happens, and their box (coupled with some suspect rain) sprouts into, of all things, a child. Their child, who emerges from the ground, muddy and plucky and school-aged (and sprouting leaves), sneaks into their house (and bed), and changes every single element of their lives. If The Odd Life of Timothy Green was edited even a smidgen differently, it would be one heck of a horror film.
However, Peter Hedges‘ Timothy Green comes to us from Walt Disney Pictures and, in the vein of their non-animated family features like Enchanted, The Princess Diaries, and The Parent Trap, it’s a sudsy outing that hammers home all manner of sterling bits of life advice and will (at the very least) serve to entertain the entire family. It’s also absolutely bizarre, insane to the point that the “story by Ahmet Zappa” credit starts making sense within the film’s first ten minutes.
Jim and Cindy Green (Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Garner) want to tell us a story – well, not us, but Adoption Services Head Honcho Shohreh Aghdashloo and Her Gap-Mouthed Assistant Who Doesn’t Get a Name – as the film opens with the would-be parents attempting to somehow convince Ashdashloo’s Evette Onat that they are worthy guardians who deserve to adopt a baby, while also telling her about the time their crushed dreams birthed a leaf baby. An unexpected choice, Jim and Cindy! Evette and Gap-Mouth are understandably dubious, and thus unfolds the Greens’ (odd) tale about their son who came from the garden.
Played by relative newcomer CJ Adams (he made his debut in Hedges’ 2007 feature, Dan in Real Life), young Timothy Green emerges from the mud much like Athena sprung from Zeus’ own head – fully formed and ready to take on the world. Timothy possesses all of the traits Jim and Cindy wished for him (he’s funny and he has a big heart) and his life experiences are shaped by some of his parents’ more specific demands (their desire for him to be musical doesn’t pan out as they expected, his athletic prowess is at the mercy of his soccer coach). But Timothy has a secret, and damn if it doesn’t have something to do with the leaves that are lodged just around his ankles. He tells us early on to “please don’t ask me about my leaves,” and Jim and Cindy oblige, covering them up with socks and seemingly forgetting that they exist. Yet, of course Timothy’s leaves play a major role in the film – both in terms of plot trajectory (can you possibly guess what it means when those leaves fall off?) and when it comes to the film’s often heavy-handed themes (accepting and embracing people’s differences) – and that’s the closest thing to a framing device that the meandering, occasionally flat Timothy Green employs.
Adams is solid in his role, a meaty enough part that allows young Timothy to go through a large range of human experiences (most importantly of which include his falling in love with an older girl, played by the surly/lovely Odeya Rush, who has a secret of her own). He’s charming without coming across as overly precocious, and he plays Timothy with an appropriate amount of maturity that never feels cloying. Edgerton works quite well in the everyman role that is Jim Green, and he takes on the film with a gusto few other actors would have attempted. Unfortunately, he’s not quite matched by his on-screen spouse, as Garner frequently looks just plain uncomfortable, particularly when she’s meant to loosen the strings and act goofy (which is unfortunate, because have you seen 13 Going On 30? Garner knows goofy).
The rest of the inhabitants of the Greens’ small town home, Stanleyville (Pencil Capital of the World!), are rounded out by a cadre of wonderful actors, all of which are relegated to roles that are, for a lack of a better word, assholes. Jim’s dad Big Jim (David Morse) comes across as a jerk who doesn’t value family life or happiness, Dianne Wiest‘s Bernice Crudstaff is a frigid society maven, Ron Livingston‘s Franklin Crudstaff is a dim-witted hack who doesn’t appear to have a moral compass when it comes to either personal or professional decisions, and even the lovely Rosemarie DeWitt is saddled with a thankless role as Cindy’s image-obsessed sister. It’s a strange bent for the film, one that is rooted in acceptance, love, and hope, to take, and their inevitable changes of hearts never feel fully earned.
Yet, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, however odd and wacky it may be, is crammed with warm family-friendly lessons that recommend it for cinematic consumption by kids and parents alike. The film is also, indeed, quite odd. But Hedges (who also penned the screenplay) and Zappa have both approached the material with what can only be deemed as true earnestness. The whole enterprise is undeniably cheesy, willfully silly, and unmistakably bizarre, and its audience’s enjoyability entirely depends on their ability to give over to the enchanted world that is Stanleyville.
The Upside: A solid performance by Joel Edgerton, an overwhelming earnestness in the face of a totally bonkers premise. Also, a kid who has leaves growing out of his legs.
The Downside: An uncomfortable performance by Jennifer Garner, a seriously insane plot (it’s Cabbage Patch Kid: The Movie), a wasted supporting cast (including Dianne Wiest, Ron Livingston, and Rosemarie DeWitt), and a bizarre bent towards sweetness that might come across as disingenuous to moviegoers who don’t surrender to the saccharine. Also, a kid who has leaves growing out of his legs.
On the Side: The Greens’ house is the same house from Halloween II.