You might get a familiar sinking feeling during the opening moments of The Odd Life of Timothy Green. A youngish couple (Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Garner) are sitting in an adoption agency being grilled by an adoption officer (Shohreh Aghdashloo). She notes that they left the “Qualifications” field on their application blank — save for one word, “Timothy.” The wife asks to explain, and the film then launches into a flashback. You can feel in your weary bones that you’re not going to make it out of the theater with your tear ducts intact.
Basically, the flashback story goes like this: That couple — Cindy and Jim Green –—were destroyed at finding out that they couldn’t conceive. Hoping to move on, they give themselves one night in which they allow themselves to imagine what their hypothetical child might be like. They write each of the nonexistent boy’s virtues down on some pieces of scrap paper: He will be “Picasso with a pencil”; he will be “honest to a fault”; he will “love and be loved,” etc. Then they place the virtues in a box, which they plant in their backyard. Lo and behold, that night, a 10-year-old boy named Timothy (played by the excellent C.J. Adams) emerges from the dirt, creeps into their home, and calls them mom and dad. As one does.
Timothy’s an odd little kid — it’s right there in the title, after all — but there’s something ominous and tragic about him as well. Specifically, he has some leaves growing on his legs. This seems at first like a weird aesthetic acknowledgement of his specialness, but we soon realize it’s actually a kind of arboreo-spiritual self-destruct mechanism: After each of his virtues is “fulfilled,” he loses a leaf. When all the leaves are gone, Timothy will also be gone.
Viewers might start to reach for their handkerchiefs right about this point — that is, if they haven’t already. Timothy Green isn’t so much a film about a childless couple suddenly blessed with one as it is about accepting the awkward and the imperfect, and about learning to appreciate what you have. Timothy may be a Magic Boy from the Beyond, but he’s also guileless and awkward: He can’t grasp the concept of dodgeball, and he pleasantly lets bullies at school do whatever they want to him. He also can’t kick a ball, which poses problems because one of his predetermined virtues is that he’s supposed to “score the winning goal in a soccer game.” Jim and Cindy love him unreservedly, but the rest of their befuddled family — her overachieving sister (Rosemarie De Witt), for example, or his gruff, macho-man father (David Morse, who might actually have this part trademarked by now) — are less accepting, more judgmental.
A real nincompoop and jerk of a critic might find himself asking questions right about now. For example, does writer-director Peter Hedges understand that virtues aren’t wishes? (They don’t get “fulfilled”; they just kind of are, so the idea of Timothy shedding a leaf upon the completion of one seems … well, imprecise, let’s say.) Also, nobody’s taught Timothy to kick a ball or to swim, but somebody apparently taught him to walk, talk, tread water, write, etc. and presumably potty-trained him, too. True, one is not supposed to ask such questions of a fantasy like this, where implausibility is the story’s very currency. Not unlike Field of Dreams, this is a movie in which random unexplained supernatural things happen to people for no real reason other than the fact that they are Good and that they deserve it.
Well, such things also happen because the script demands it, and this is one maddeningly transparent movie, like something written by a computer. Daddy issues between Jim and his father? Check. A craven boss character (Ron Livingston, wasted) who also happens to be the father of the school bully? Check. A last-minute plan that saves the local pencil factory? (Don’t ask.) Check. We know where it’s all going, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but it doesn’t get there in a particularly interesting way, which is. But maybe that shouldn’t be so surprising. For all its feints at sensitivity, this isn’t a movie, it’s a machine, and it’s hard not to be impressed — perhaps even awed — by the sheer ruthlessness with which it jerks the tears from your eyes. If anything, a real movie might just have gotten in the way.