Herald Journal Columns
Oct. 27, 2003 Herald Journal
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Taking a look at McCanlies' 'Secondhand Lions'

By JERRY FORD

Charming but somewhat flawed, "Secondhand Lions" is a coming of age story set in the 1950s. As I was watching it, I found myself thinking that if this film had actually been made in the '50s, it would have been more successful.

Haley Joel Osment ("The 6th Sense," "Pay It Forward") plays Walter, a boy on the verge of puberty and permanent psychological damage, the latter caused by his pathetic, money-grubbing mother, who, in the vernacular of the period, is a floozy.

Mae, played quite adeptly by Kyra Sedgwick ("Phenomenon"), wants to dump her son for the summer so that, she tells him, she can go to court reporting school (she actually goes to Las Vegas). So, she drops him off in the care of his two great-uncles, who are elderly recluses living on a farm in Texas.

These two old brothers, Hub and Garth, are played by Robert Duvall, who's been in everything, and Michael Caine, who's been in everything else ­ though you have to go all the way back to 1976 to see them in another movie together. (Trivia question: What was the film?).

But Mae has an ulterior motive for leaving Walter with these old codgers, whose favorite pastime is firing shotguns at traveling salesmen.

Rumor has it the uncles have a fortune in cash stowed somewhere on the farm, so Mae instructs Walter to find out where they keep the money.

As Walter gets to know his great-uncles, he discovers far more mysteries than the hidden cash.

Garth gradually tells him how he and Hub had great adventures in Africa and Arabia, how Hub fell in love with a princess and stole her away from a powerful sheik.

Eventually, Walter learns that the rumored fortune, according to Garth, came into their possession when Hub tricked the sheik out of both his princess and his gold.

But is this fantastic story true? Other characters tell Walter that the brothers were hit men for Al Capone, or that they were bank robbers.

The comedy is spiced up with a menagerie of funny dogs, a pig, other relatives who are vying to inherit the fortune, and the title character, an old lion.

Garth and Hub bought the lion so they could release and hunt it, but, when the beast won't attack or run, it becomes Walter's pet. And, of course, the title also refers to these one-time swashbucklers who are now misanthropic old men.

Though there's plenty of laughs and perhaps a tear or two in this sentimental comedy, I still wasn't taken in by the story the way I wanted to be.

I believe there were two reasons for this: a screenplay that didn't quite do justice to the talents of these accomplished actors, and a disjointed performance by Haley Joel Osment; and I think both problems can be traced back to the director.

Tim McCanlies wrote the screenplay and directed the film, and I suspect this is a case of a director being too close to his own script to see the flaws. He's only directed one other major release, which got lukewarm reviews.

Actors like Caine and Duvall don't need much direction ­ they can create convincing and interesting characters from even the weakest scripts ­ but Haley Joel Osment doesn't have their years of experience.

Yes, Osment was incredible in "The Sixth Sense," but he had the peerless M. Night Shyamalan as a director. And he continued to shine in "A.I.," but that was Spielberg. I suspect that Tim McCanlies doesn't yet have the experience to bring out great performances from child actors, even ones as talented as Osment.

So, the result was a protagonist with whom I had trouble being sympathetic ­ I didn't believe he was actually feeling these the emotions that drove his character to change and grow.

But that's all nitpicking. It's still a delightful movie, and good for all ages, except for a bit of course language and some violence.

As I said at the beginning of this review, had it come out in, say, 1957 with films like "Old Yeller," it would have been a remarkable film. "Secondhand Lions" does a fine job reviving a style that's a bit passe, and makes for an enjoyable evening at the cinema.

Rated PG thematic material, language, and action violence.


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