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Robert Duvall and Michael
Caine try out for next fall's
remake of Deliverance.

Secondhand Lions
Review written by: Alex Sandell

It's hard to form a solid opinion regarding Secondhand Lions.  This review comes in four days late because I needed some time to sort out my feelings regarding the film.  This is a weird meshing of genres.  An odd mixture of Grumpy Old Men, On Golden Pond and The Princess Bride.  The combination makes for an incredibly quirky family film. 

I knew from the start that I liked Secondhand Lions.  But I knew at the end that the film had underestimated its audience.  The need to explain everything during the film's final minute nearly destroyed the nearly two hours that came before.  The movie makes a point throughout that you don't have to know the truth regarding everything that there is to know.  It goes as far as to say that something doesn't have to be true for someone to believe in it.  It's odd that the film itself strays from its message and shoves the truth down the audience's throat.

I was convinced that this was a studio demand after test screenings, but after finding out that the movie was written by Tim McCanlies -- the man behind the best animated film ever made, The Iron Giant -- I knew that it was Tim, once again, who couldn't resist revealing the man behind the curtain. 

The Iron Giant stretches on about one minute too long.  Secondhand Lions does the same thing.  The difference is that what is revealed in the final 60 seconds of The Iron Giant doesn't impact and alter nearly every single event that took place during the rest of the film.  What we find out during the last minute of Secondhand Lions changes everything that we knew, and all that we didn't know, about the story that had just played out before us.

And that's the primary reason I have struggled with my feelings regarding this film for so many days, now.  The bulk of the film was just magical enough to overcome the ridiculous ending.  McCanlies writes joyous screenplays that celebrate life to an extent that you can't leave one of his movies without a big kooky grin splashed haphazardly across your face.  It's as though he has captured bona fide "escapism" in a bottle and lets it out with his every picture.

Secondhand Lions is the story of a young teenage boy named Walter (Haley Joel Osment) dropped off by his irresponsible mother May (Kyra Sedgwick) to stay with his unconventional great uncles, while she attends college.  It doesn't hurt anything that May needs money and Walter's great uncles happen to have tons of it.  Problem is, nobody knows how they got it or where it's hidden.  May desperately wants Walter to make a good impression, so the two of them will get a large chunk of the inheritance.

When Walter first meets his uncles he's slightly frightened of them.  Although they're rich, they live in a rundown house and refuse to buy anything but the necessities.  They don't have a phone or a television set, but they do have a pair of rifles and a taste for shooting at traveling salesmen.  One day Walter asks them why they don't ever buy anything, and it's as if the thought had never occurred to the elderly pair.  Before long they're buying lions to hunt, seeds to plant a garden and about everything they set eyes upon - including an unassembled airplane.

But there's another story far removed from the one taking place on this dusty old farm.  Walter finds his great uncle Hub (Robert Duvall) out one night fighting valiantly with a plunger.  Although Hub's getting on in years, he sure knows how to use a plunger on his invisible foes.  Walter asks his uncle Garth what's happening with Hub, and another story unfolds.  This one contains swashbuckling adventure and romance far away in foreign lands.  It contains riches and war.  Comedy and tragedy. 

McCanlies directs these stories with great vigor.  But they're obviously too exaggerated to be true.  This sort of stuff only happens in the movies, right?  And that's where a third element comes into the film, and that is one of mystery.

Some say Hub and Garth stole their money from the Mafia.  It's also rumored that they were villainous bank robbers, killing innocent civilians and leaving wounded girlfriends in the dust as they escaped and their mates slowly perished.  Walter doesn't know what to believe.  When he asks his uncle what really happened, Hub only tells him that it doesn't matter.  He says that the truth is what we choose to believe. 

If only Tim McCanlies believed in the truth of his own message and let the audience make up their own minds as to how Hub and Garth came across their fortune.  But McCanlies spells it all out for us, like an annoyingly obvious episode of Sesame Street. 

Almost everything else in the film works wonderfully.  The only other flub is Haley Joel Osment's performance.  It's as though the actor's lost a large part of his superb acting talent during his two-year hiatus from film.  His performance in Secondhand Lions feels largely forced. 

But Osment is playing against two of the greatest actors alive, and neither Duvall nor Caine disappoint.  The two play curmudgeonly old farts perfectly.  They also play youthful spirits trapped in elderly bodies in a sympathetic and believable manner.  The two are a wonder to watch.

I still don't know quite what to think of Secondhand Lions.  It does put a smile on my face whenever I think about it.  A warm glow lingers long after the last flicker of credits have left the screen.  This isn't perfect filmmaking, but it's pleasant enough and a pleasure to watch.

On a scale of 1-10?


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Coming soon -- Reviews of Kill Bill, Mystic River and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre!

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Text (Copyright) 2003 Alex Sandell [All Rights Reserved].