Secondhand Lions
Secondhand Lions

USA, 2003. Rated PG. 105 minutes.

Cast: Haley Joel Osment, Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, Kyra Sedgwick, Nicky Katt, Josh Lucas, Michael O'Neill, Deirdre O'Connell, Christian Kane, Kevin Michael Haberer, Emmanuelle Vaugier, Eric Balfour
Writer: Tim McCanlies
Original Music: Patrick Doyle
Cinematography: Jack N. Green
Producers: David Kirschner, Scott Ross, Corey Sienega
Director: Tim McCanlies


Grade: C+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

"And Haley Osment, what an astonishing— Where is he? There he is. Haley, when I saw you I thought, well that's me out of it."

—Michael Caine, accepting the Academy Award for The Cider House Rules in March 2000, on fellow nominee Haley Joel Osment

L ooking back on one of the classier acceptance speeches in recent Academy Awards broadcasts, it makes a nice story that Michael Caine and Haley Joel Osment found a way to work together. They join another Academy Award Winner, Robert Duvall, in New Line's family-friendly Secondhand Lions, a sometimes-laugh-out-loud-funny, but loosely written, mixed bag of broad comedy, introspective coming-of-age drama, and fantastical adventure. Though it delivers a reasonably good time for almost all ages (the film is justifiably rated PG, not G), Secondhand Lions is eventually done in by an irreconcilable tension between complexity and commercialism.

The film opens with the overused flashback device, in which the author of a successful Bloom County-ish comic strip looks back on the source of his creative inspiration, a summer spent with his uncles and an odd assortment of animals on a underused farm/ranch in central Texas. Next scene: self-centered single mom Mae (Kyra Sedgwick) drops 14-year-old Walter with his two long-absent cantankerous great-uncles, Hub and Garth McCaan (Robert Duvall and Michael Caine, respectively), so that she can go off to the Fort Worth College of Court Reporting. If the uncles should take a liking to him and decide to leave him their massive rumored fortune, why, that would be a very welcome development indeed.

No evidence of this supposed fortune exists on the uncles' ramshackle property. There is no television or telephone, either, much to Walter's distress. The best way to pass the time is firing off shotguns at all the traveling salesmen who have also heard something about a fortune. The uncles' idea of caring for a young teenager consists of telling him, "We don't know nothing about kids, so if you need something find it yourself. If we die in the middle of the night, you're on your own."

In his designated bedroom, Walter discovers an old trunk covered with travel stickers from exotic places. Inside, under a layer of sand, he finds an old photograph of a mysteriously beautiful woman. His curiosity aroused not by their money but by their lives, he begins to pump Garth for the details of their incredible swashbuckling adventures in Europe and North Africa, lavishly staged and set to an annoyingly loud score. The amount of money that must have been spent on these fleeting sequences is mind-boggling, even if the settings are digital.
Michael Caine and Haley Joel Osment
Michael Caine and Haley Joel Osment look off into the night in Secondhand Lions

The film is off to a promising start. Caine and Duvall give deliciously gruff performances, in which Hub greets May's arrival by asking Garth, "You send for a hooker?" The recreations of Garth's stories are amusingly over-the-top, including hilarious touches wherein the characters all speak in Michael Caine's voiceincluding the gorgeous Jasmine (Emmanuelle Vaugier). Writer/director Tim McCanlies (writer of The Iron Giant) and producer David Kirschner (An American Tail, Titan A.E.) are animated film veterans, and their background shows up in the amusing behavior of the various dogs, chickens, and pigs on the McCaan homestead, as well as little touches like the "Acme" Animal Movers who deliver an old "used" lion to the McCaan homestead, and the "Purina Lion Chow" she eats. (Actually, Purina makes many kinds of Chow, including Goat Chow, Deer Chow, and Wild Bird Chow, but the sight of the massive bags of dry Lion Chow is still funny.)

Trouble creeps in with sloppy writing. Contrast, for example, the lighthearted Babe-like scene of a pig and the chicken perched on its head looking into the kitchen window during breakfast with the terrible confrontation between Walter and Mae's abusive boyfriend (Nicky Katt). The two don't naturally fit into the same movie, and the film lacks the subtlety to knit them cohesively togetherwhich is odd, considering the subtlety McCanlies demonstrated in The Iron Giant. Reports of reshoots, however, indicate that the problem may originate from having too many cooks in the kitchen. Another example of poor writingor perhaps poor editingis the scene when the two brothers crustily and obliquely talk Walter into returning home after he has run off. McCanlies has not yet earned the emotion he injects into this moment, mostly because the scene occurs too early in the film. We don't know anything about the brothers at that point; they have not yet shown any inclination toward tender-heartedness, and we don't really know Walter very well by then, either. He has not yet given usor these two crusty old-timersany reason to care (other than the fact that he's a kid and he's Haley Joel Osment fer chrissakes!).

The finest child actor of all time, in the opinion of some, tarnishes his star a bit. Osment's performance feels a touch too mannered, a little fake, as if he's not wholly comfortable with the role. Is it because this is a much lighter film than A.I. or The Sixth Sense? Or is it just that most boys are pretty awkward when they hit puberty? Who can say?

The old "secondhand lion" obviously represents the brothers themselvesthere is little about this film that isn't obvious, at least until a touch of uncertainty regarding the uncles' history makes the film, for awhile, satisfyingly complex. Unfortunately, the film's message is invalidated by the cheesy tacked-on ending that removes all doubt about the uncles. If this isn't an ending added after negative test-screening feedback, I don't know what is. Most people have a low tolerance for ambiguities in their movie heroes, I guess. If you are not one of these people, don't allow the ending to ruin the film. Ignore it. Or better yet, get ready to leave the theater when the adult Walter (Josh Lucas) returns to the old house. Start running for the exitdon't walkas soon as he hears a helicopter.

Review © September 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images 2003 New Line Publications. All Rights Reserved.

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