Perhaps it doesn't matter if a weepie comes by its tears honestly. Catharsis is catharsis. At the comedy-drama Unfinished Song, there's a ninety percent chance of rain from your eyes, but something's definitely off: the picture might as well be going at you with pepper spray.
Suggesting Amour with musical numbers, the first movement of Unfinished Song explores the last days in the marriage of Arthur Harris (Terence Stamp) and his wife Marion (Vanessa Redgrave), whose cancer has returned with an untreatable vengeance. Despite the death sentence, Marion keeps smiling, doubling down on her commitment to her friends at the Smith Hall Community Centre. There, Gemma Arterton's Elizabeth coaches a competitive choir she's dubbed the "O.A.P.z" (old age pensioners...with an attitude!). That's right: they're not afraid to sing Salt-N-Pepa's "Let's Talk About Sex"! In askew baseball caps!
If you're starting to feel a bit grumpy, you'll relate to Arthur, who resents the O.A.P.z for ostensibly making his wife happier than he does. Arthur has long struggled with anhedonia, and now the only source of joy in his life (except his weekly lad's night out) will soon be ripped away from him. Before she goes, Marion essentially serenades Arthur in public, sweetly warbling "True Colors." A palsied Redgrave and her emotionally sensitive performance evokes Marion's fear, her strength and, most importantly, the defining twinkle in her eye.
What the movie's really about, though, is putting that twinkle in Arthur's eye. And when it first shows up—Stamp unmistakably mirroring Redgrave's ocular expression of joy—it's a truly magical confluence of great acting, two actors working in concert even though one has left the building. But to get there, audiences will have to suffer through a lot of "Up with (Old) People" shamelessness: condescension to retirees, silly mugging, and truly stupid plot turns meant to drum up emotional conflict and underdog suspense.
Writer-director Paul Andrew Williams manipulates like mad to have his weepie, enabled by the patronizing Elizabeth, Arthur's estranged son James (Christopher Eccleston), and James' chipper young daughter Jennifer (Orla Hill)—and thoughtfully dedicated "to family." Add up the gloppy, needless frame of narration from Elizabeth and the fleet 93-minute running time, and one can plainly see the mercenary influence of the Weinstein Company, notorious for storming editing rooms. The only opportunity Williams misses is pairing up single-dad James with the inexplicably unloved Elizabeth; that subplot is probably decorating the cutting-room floor.
And yet there are Redgrave and Stamp, who (err...spoiler alert?) gets a climactic opportunity to sing a "Song for Marion" (the film's original title). I won't say what the song is, but Stamp sticks the landing. Unfortunately, he's first forced through the obstacle course of a seriously stumbly third act (with look-away-from-the-screen lines like "It's too late! I can't change!"). Should you see Unfinished Song? If you're an inveterate softie looking to hydrate your eyes, yes. If you can't bear the thought of missing good work by Redgrave and Stamp, maybe. But if you have a low tolerance for having your intelligence insulted (or dreadful renditions of "Love Shack"), it's a definite no.