The Odd Life of Timothy Green

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“The Odd Life of Timothy Green” is a fanciful story that has the same basic concept as two otherwise very different films: “Mary Poppins” and “Weird Science.” In all three movies, two people make a list of the qualities they’d want in an ideal nanny/woman/son, then are shocked when that imaginary person, accompanied by unusual weather, actually appears in the flesh. The newcomer takes them on adventures and helps them learn valuable life lessons, and then, having fulfilled his or her duty, vanishes.

The trouble with “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” is that there is no reason for the fantastical title character to show up. He’s wished into existence by Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton), a loving couple in a wholesome Midwestern town who have just learned that they cannot have children. As an exercise to help them accept this reality and move on, Cindy and Jim write down what their perfect child would be like, then bury the notes in the garden as an act of catharsis. But after a freak rainstorm, 10-year-old Timothy (CJ Adams) appears, having sprouted from the ground like a plant in answer to the couple’s prayers.

Timothy is unusually friendly and optimistic, the sort of kid who’s instantly loved by nearly everyone who meets him. But we know he won’t be here permanently: all of this is being related after the fact by Cindy and Jim, who are sitting in an office trying to persuade an adoption official (Shohreh Aghdashloo) to give them a child, and for some reason they think that telling the amazing story of the time they grew a boy out of the dirt and kept him like a son for a few months will help their case. So what will this kindly married couple have learned from their experiences with Timothy? How will he have enriched their lives and made them ready to be parents?

Instead of answering that question, the film is satisfied to prance around whimsically in Precioustown for two hours, delivering sweet vignettes that are full of magic but devoid of purpose. Jim wants to be a better father to Timothy than his dad (David Morse) was to him — but he was already intent on that before Timothy arrived. Cindy has no discernible conflicts until late in the film, when we discover that her sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) is always bragging about her overachieving children and that this irks Cindy, and that this has apparently been a problem all along and the movie just didn’t mention it.

Near the end, Timothy tells Jim and Cindy that they’re ready to be parents. Then he adds, “You’ve always been ready.” That last part, delivered almost as an afterthought, summarizes why the movie, for all its cute touches and warm performances, is ultimately unsatisfying. Cindy and Jim weren’t flawed, irresponsible, or immature people who needed an angelic surrogate son to show them the ropes of parenthood. They were perfect parents from the outset! They didn’t need Timothy. Timothy hasn’t taught them anything. So, uh, why are we here, movie? You should know better than to call a meeting without having an agenda.

It was written and directed by Peter Hedges, a departure from his much sturdier and more down-to-earth “Pieces of April” and “Dan in Real Life.” This thing’s just sloppy. The scenes set at the adoption agency have a time limit applied to them, for no reason other than to create false suspense over whether Jim and Cindy will plead their case before the clock runs out. Having fantasized in their initial brainstorming that their perfect son would score the winning goal in a soccer game, Jim and Cindy eagerly await the moment when this will come to pass with Timothy, and mention it about a dozen times in two minutes. “He’s going to score the winning goal! Just you watch! He’s going to do it!!” (Gee, do you think it will turn out in a way they didn’t expect???) The rich family that owns the local pencil factory — the chief industry in this little town — is named Crudstaff (har har!), and they’re all cranky jerks. Cindy has a botanist friend who appears in one early scene, then is forgotten until the end, when he’s included on the list of townsfolk whose lives Timothy touched.

Even allowing for a certain level of unreality in a movie intended as an allegory, “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” smells of contrivance and falseness. What keeps it from being completely insufferable is the earnest charm in Jennifer Garner, Joel Edgerton, and young CJ Adams’ performances. Whether or not it makes any sense or serves any purpose, their time together is sweet. I just wish it made for a better story.

C (1 hr., 55 min.; PG, mild thematic elements.)

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