Director: Tim McCanlies
Cast: Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, Haley Joel Osment, Kyra Sedgwick, Nicky Katt, Josh Lucas
MPAA Rating: (for thematic material, language and action violence)
Running Time: 1:49
Release Date: 9/19/03
Review by Mark Dujsik
There's a deep, sad yearning that permeates through the fantastical optimism of Secondhand Lions that gives it the cold, harsh edge of reality. It makes the characters more human and feel more developed than the script allows them to be. These characters grow on us, even with a few holes in their outlines. A film like this—without linear plot or depth into complex thematic material—depends almost entirely on our connection to its characters; they are what give us "plot" and "theme." Secondhand Lions works on the most basic level of effective character-driven drama, in that the characters move beyond caricatures to the point that we are able to relate to them as human beings and find them to be more or less believable. Writer/director Tim McCanlies doesn't quite reach the next step, in which we see these people as unique, full-blooded characters, but he has the fortune of having three strong personalities in each of the roles, helping to further the illusion of character depth. McCanlies' ability to deliver a heartwarming story of overcoming personal inhibitions and growing to understand the people from whom we can learn the most from isn't in doubt, but if only he scratched the surface a bit more.
The movie starts with a cartoonist getting a phone call: "It's about your uncles." Abruptly, it's flashback time. Young Walter (Haley Joel Osment) is on his way to spend the summer with his two great-uncles while his mother Mae (Kyra Sedgwick) goes to court reporting school. Mom wants Walter to be exceptionally nice to his uncles, because rumor has it they're rich beyond belief. The only problem is they're also private and eccentric beyond belief. Garth (Michael Caine) and Hub (Robert Duvall) live alone off the main road with signs warning of attack dogs, explosives, and other treats for trespassers. Without the luxuries of television or radio, they spend their days sitting on the porch with shotguns ready to ward off traveling salesmen. Walter isn't keen on such diversions, and after observing his uncles' behavior and finding out he will be sleeping in the tower of the house in a dusty bedroom, he runs off to call his mother—only she isn't at court reporting school. Garth and Hub find him and convince him to come back, and now that he has only one choice, he does.
Needless to say, Walter will eventually come to understand his elders' ways and learn some Important Life Lessons from them. There are actually two movies here: the central episodic progression of familial bonding and an exaggerated adventure told with a wink and a smile. The yarn is related to Walter by Garth and is presented with over-the-top aplomb, with such hilarious tiny details as the evil sheik with the wicked smile who displays to a group of assassins the reward for killing young Hub by digging his hand into a box of gold ducats and pouring the contents back in. The events that lead a villainous sheik to hire assassins to kill young Hub are best left unrevealed, but what both the present events and the adventure tale have in common is an underlying melancholy and heartache that lives perceptibly underneath the surface of the carefree spirit of both stories. We have Walter, whose mother has essentially abandoned him, and it isn't the first time she has done such a thing. Implied but never stated is the impact his lack of a father figure has had on him. There's also the fate of Hub's only love, which is so ordinary in the context of the rest of the story that it comes across all the more heartbreaking.
So are Garth and Hub really French legionnaires who went on adventures through North Africa? Or are they mob hitmen who stole from Al Capone, as a woman at the hospital suggests, or bank robbers, as Walter's mother's abusive private investigator boyfriend says? In one of those scenes that only an actor like Robert Duvall can get away with, Walter learns that the truth isn't important; the only thing that matter is what you believe. Duvall also commands the screen in a scene in which Hub tells a gang of teenagers who he is and then proceeds to simultaneously fight them and teach them how to fight. Whereas Hub is the enigma, Garth takes to Walter right away. Michael Caine's warm, caring side comes through strong as the rock for Walter to cling to during this storm. Speaking of metaphors, a literal lion is eventually brought in. Hub calls it defective when it simply stays in the crate instead of making itself a target. The symbol is obvious, but then again, this is the kind of film that wears its metaphors along with its heart on its sleeve.Then there's the work of Haley Joel Osment, which can pass one by if one does not pay attention. See where he starts off in the film, as a quiet, squeaky-voiced kid with no confidence. His transformation into a proud and assertive adolescent is so seamless that its full effect isn't noticeable until the end of that story. Secondhand Lions pleases in little details like this, which is important especially when many bigger details—Garth's past being reduced to comic relief and the awkward bookend scenes stand out the most—remain unresolved. Thankfully, the movie is full of little details.
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.