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Morgan Freeman

Florence Pugh and Morgan Freeman in a scene from 'A Good Person' Photo by Jeong Park/MGM

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Zach Braff is best known for his acting work, most notably for his nine seasons as Dr. J.D. Dorian on the sitcom Scrubs. Additionally, his extensive work behind the camera includes producing, writing, and directing. The works encompass short films, television, and, most notably, the feature film Garden State (2004), a quirky but effective rom-com featuring Braff and Natalie Portman. Unfortunately, his follow-up, the domestic comedy-drama Wish I Was Here (2014), was not well-received.

Braff’s third offering, A Good Person, is a drama of dysfunction and addiction. The film opens with Morgan Freeman’s voiceover as he works on his model trains, wistfully proffering the idea that life is neither neat nor tidy. Then, the idyllic moment shifts to the raucous engagement party of Allison (Florence Pugh) and Nathan (Chinaza Uche). Allison sings an original song to her future husband, much to the delight of the guests.

The next morning, Allison drives her future sister-in-law and brother-in-law from New Jersey into New York City. Checking the map app on her phone, Allison involves them in an accident where her prospective in-laws die.

A year later, Florence is an unemployed pharmaceutical rep addicted to pills. She lives in a perpetual state of conflict with her mother, Diane (Molly Shannon), who lacks the insight or emotional resources to help her struggling daughter. Florence has run through her oxy, and none of her doctors will refill her prescription. After a failed attempt to blackmail a former colleague, she ends up in a bar where she smokes with two low-lifes with whom she had gone to high school. Florence has hit bottom.

She attends an AA meeting, running into Daniel (Morgan Freeman), the man who would have been her father-in-law. She leaves, but Daniel stops her, suggesting fate has brought them together. They form an odd bond that becomes a tenuous friendship. 

Retired Daniel was a cop for forty years and a drunk for fifty. Sober ten years, he grapples with raising his orphaned granddaughter, the now rebellious Ryan (Celeste O’Connor). He accepts that he does not know how to raise a teenager, having left that to his wife. The worlds collide as Allison and Ryan accidentally meet at Daniel’s house and also form a strained connection. Ryan shares her late mother’s feelings that Allison was the best thing to happen to her uncle Nathan. Ryan lets slip that her grandfather blames Allison for the accident.

The film is rife with revelations and the sharing of histories. An alcoholic father abused Daniel. In turn, Daniel became a blackout drunk, mistreating his own children. In an inebriated rage, Daniel beat Nathan so severely that the boy lost hearing in his right ear. Estranged, the adult Nathan and Daniel have only the slightest of relationships. 

While the film covers no new territory, the narrative contains the makings of a dramatic and interesting story. Sadly, the gap between intention and execution can be the distance between Perth Amboy and Perth, Australia. 

The film tackles difficult subject matters—guilt, addiction, withdrawal, forgiveness—but somehow manages to avoid depth. Director Braff works from his screenplay, which seems a patchwork of acting class scenes. The occasional smart quip—“the opiate of the masses is opium”—is lost among aphorisms and cliches—“Comparison is the thief of joy.” 

Daniel’s Viet Nam veteran cap is jaw-droppingly unsubtle. In a film brimming with life and death issues, the result is often tensionless and pedestrian. The metaphors—the model trains, Allison’s father’s watch, swimming, songwriting—even a haircut—are heavy-handed. 

However, while Braff the writer might have failed, he cast well and brought out strong performances. Florence Pugh finds the anguish and ugliness in Allison’s spiral. She is mesmerizing rawness in every moment, alternating between a hyper-aware ferocity and a disconnected stupor. Morgan Freeman is incapable of shoddy work and remains one of the most watchable cross-genre actors. While Daniel sits in the center of his range, he manages to nuance the darker moments, contrasted with Freeman’s often-seen “wise” humor.

Molly Shannon’s mother is a bit shrill, but her brittleness and immaturity are not misplaced. Chinaza Uche is given little more than shades of pain, but what he does is imbued with sincerity. Twenty-something Celeste O’Connor embodies the angry teenager, Ryan, and easily holds her own against Pugh and Freeman. She proffers fire, grief, and even joy, while hovering on the verge of implosion.

So much of A Good Person feels manipulated, if not downright manipulative. Ultimately, Braff confuses messy lives with sloppy filmmaking. 

Rated R, the film is now playing in local theaters.

From left, Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Fathom Events

“You can get busy living … or get busy dying.”

It’s been 25 years since “The Shawshank Redemption” was first released. To celebrate the momentous anniversary, the classic film will return to more than 600 select theaters nationwide on Sept. 22, 24 and 25, courtesy of Warner Bros., Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events.

Written and directed by Frank Darabont, with a wonderful score by Thomas Newman, the film, based on the 1982 Stephen King short story, “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” from his 1982 collection “Different Seasons,” was not a blockbuster when it was released on Sept. 24, 1994. It grossed $28.3 million on a $25 million budget. However, it received seven Oscar nominations and went on to become one of the most-celebrated films in history when released on video.

In 2015 the United States Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the National Film Registry, calling it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” and it has been the number 1 film on IMDb’s user-generated Top 250 since 2008, when it surpassed “The Godfather.”

The film tells a story of human kindness in the most unkind place: prison, specifically Shawshank State Penitentiary. Both serving a life sentence, inmates, Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman) and Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a mild-mannered banker wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, forge an unlikely bond that will span more than 20 years. Together they discover hope as the ultimate means of survival.

The film also stars Bob Gunton (Warden Norton), William Sadler (Heywood), Clancy Brown (Captain Hadley), Gil Bellows (Tommy) and James Whitmore as Brooks.

In a recent interview with Chris Lindahl of IndieWire, Darabont said, “I think people want to believe that there is goodness and a moral compass in the world. And I think that’s why ‘Shawshank’ has [such an] effect on people.”

The special screening includes exclusive insight from TCM Primetime host Ben Mankiewicz.

Participating theaters in our neck of the woods include AMC Loews Stony Brook 17, 2196 Nesconset Highway, Stony Brook on Sept. 22 at 4 and 7 p.m. and Sept. 24 and 25 at 7 p.m.; Farmingdale Multiplex Cinemas, 1001 Broadhollow Road, Farmingdale on Sept. 25 at 7 p.m.; and Island 16 Cinema de Lux, 185 Morris Ave., Holtsville on Sept. 25 at 7 p.m. To purchase your ticket in advance, visit www.fathomevents.com.