‘The Odd Life of Timothy Green’: More magic, please

August 17, 2012

There is something magical about “The Odd Life of Timothy Green.” But not, unfortunately, magical enough.

For a fable like this to work, you need a vision sharp enough, created with enough heart and wit, to brush aside complaints about its fantastic plot – fantastic in the sense of being rooted in fantasy, while maintaining a realistic setting.

We’re not talking “Grimm” or “Once Upon a Time” or any of the other silly, fairy-tale-based TV shows that seem to be the rage at the moment. Rather, in “Timothy Green,” writer-director Peter Hedges is trying something a little trickier – something more delicate.

Framed as a flashback, “Timothy Green” is the story of Jim and Cindy Green (Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Garner), who live in a dying industrial town whose central economy driver is the local pencil factory, where Jim works. For good measure, there’s a drought going on as well.

At the film’s start, Jim and Cindy get some terrible news: After years of trying everything, they are told that, in fact, they will never be able to produce a baby of their own. Rather than mourn, they get drunk and start imagining the kid they would have had, writing each of his awesome attributes on a piece of paper, then putting the slips into a wooden box, which they bury (or plant) in their garden, along with their dreams, apparently.

Overnight, however, something odd happens: There’s a rainstorm localized specifically over their house and garden. And something crawls out of the earth. In the morning, they discover muddy footprints leading to what would have been the baby’s room – and, inside, a mud-covered 10-year-old who announces that his name is Timothy and that he is theirs.

Oh, and one more thing: He has small leafy vines growing out of his calves.

The Greens swing with it, simply telling their family that he’s their new son without explaining where or how he appeared. They enroll him in school, where he becomes a target for bullies but also the object of interest of a local misfit girl (Odeya Rush). Timothy joins a soccer team (though the coach, the rapper Common, keeps him on the bench) and becomes the apple of his new parents’ eye, if not the fruit of their loins.

Meanwhile, Jim is dealing with problems at work: The pencil factory is facing hard times because of increasing production costs and decreasing market share and because, well, they make pencils in 2012. But Timothy and his new dad come up with an idea for a virtually cost-free new pencil prototype made of – what else? – leaves.

“The Odd Life of Timothy Green” wants to induce what was referred to in “Steel Magnolias” as “laughter through tears.” While it will undoubtedly produce the waterworks, the laughs are a little harder to come by. It’s all a little too earnest for that.

Certainly, young CJ Adams, who plays Timothy, is a winning actor: eager and bright without seeming too needy. He captures the sense of wonder of a visitor from, well, somewhere else, discovering this life for the first time. He doesn’t overplay the goofiness and makes Timothy’s innocence and optimism believable without being cloying.

Edgerton and Garner play these unexpected parents with a level of reality that also works. What they lack – and the problem is the script’s, not theirs – are funny things to say. They are meant to be the reactors – except at those moments when their stiff family members (including a misused Rosemarie DeWitt as Garner’s sister and David Morse as Edgerton’s domineering father) are reacting to them. But the writing leaves them dangling.

“The Odd Life of Timothy Green” is likable – eager to please but ultimately unable to do so. It could have been a summer sensation. Unfortunately, it’s not.

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