Framed as a story within a story, The Odd Life Of Timothy Green opens with a childless couple (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) explaining to an adoption agent (Shohreh Aghdashloo) a recent experience that establishes their ability to be parents. It is, as the title promises, an odd tale, one that begins the evening after they receive the news that they’ve run out of medical options to help them conceive a child. Using a notepad, Garner and Edgerton write down all the qualities they imagine their child would have had, and bury their notes in the garden behind their house. Then, in the middle of the night, they’re visited by a 10-year-old boy (CJ Adams) who calls them “mom” and “dad.” He seems like the embodiment of their dreams, though he does have one unusual feature: a handful of leaves sprouting from his legs.
Written and directed by Peter Hedges (Dan In Real Life) from a story by Ahmet Zappa, The Odd Life Of Timothy Green attempts to stage a modern fairy tale in Middle America. But in spite of an abundance of earnestness, the pixie dust needed to create magic remains out of the film’s reach. That’s partly because Timothy Green never decides what sort of fairy tale it wants to tell, or to whom it wants to tell it. The tone stays kid-friendly from start to finish, but the themes remain aimed squarely at grown-ups. With little hesitation, Garner and Edgerton introduce Adams to their families, and all their attendant issues, including Garner’s rivalry with caustic, overachieving sister Rosemarie DeWitt and Edgerton’s strained relationship with his father (David Morse).
There are bigger problems, too: Their town appears idyllic, but its fortunes remain tied to the decades-long rise and recent fall of the factory that made Stanleyville synonymous with pencils. That’s a lot for any kid to take on, even one who recently popped out of the ground with a beatific expression on his face. And as the film rolls on, it becomes apparent that Adams’ character is mostly, maybe only, there to fix the grown-ups’ problems, even if each problem he solves means losing a leaf and drawing ever closer to the destination that awaits all too-good-for-this-world characters, from Owen Meany to Frosty The Snowman.
Adams delivers a performance of unearthly calm, but the film’s determination to keep him at a distance leaves it at a disadvantage. He always seems more like an idea of a kid than flesh-and-blood reality; he’s easy enough to like but there isn’t enough to him to love. That’s consistent with the scheme of the movie, which is storybook-pretty, but also storybook-thin, all glowing twinkle with no illuminating shine. (It’s tempting, however futile, to imagine what someone with a bit of daring, say Tim Burton circa Edward Scissorhands, could have done with this material.) In spite of its nominal oddness, The Odd Life Of Timothy Green plays it too safe, scrupulously avoiding turning into a downer while nodding toward themes of mortality, aging, and loss. It wants to warm hearts without ever daring to break them.