Secondhand Lions Movie Review

Like a similar creature that patrols a certain Yellow Brick Road, Tim McCanlies' Secondhand Lions is in dire need of a shot of courage. It's scary to think of how much better this king of the jungle could've been had it possessed the sharp teeth of its animal namesake and took a serious bite out of the plump themes of family greed, lost love and misspent youth. What we're left with are recycled kitten swipes taken by a family-friendly charmer that's content to coast by on the casting coup of landing Michael Caine and Robert Duvall under one cinematic roof.

Shy, bookish, and firmly implanted in his social shell, young Walter (Haley Joel Osment) receives a wake-up call when he's unceremoniously dumped off with his two great uncles Garth (Caine) and Hub (Duvall). It could be for a few days but might be for a few months, his mother (Kyra Sedgwick) tells him. Oh, and the two eccentric curmudgeons reportedly are millionaires, so if Walter can figure out where they're stashing their money before mom returns, all the better.

Hosting company is not this duo's forte. Garth and Hub are two old men "fixin' to die," and they just want to do so in peace. They spend their days taking pot shots (literally) at traveling salesmen and lecherous relatives wanting to muscle in on the supposed inheritance. In time, they take a liking to Walter, though. Not for anything the boy does, per se, but more for the fact that the screenplay requires they grow closer. Yes, it feels that forced.

But what a motley trio! The pre-pubescent Osment is still growing into his talents, while his legendary co-stars are yet to pass their prime. The sensitive and open-minded Caine offers a pleasant counterbalance to Duvall's surly coot who's quick to lead with his fists. Osment does more reacting than acting, but the three form a specialized boy's club you'd pay anything to join.

We're really given two movies in Lions, though one's more developed than the other. On the outside, writer/director McCanlies' pleasant, "down-home" humor barely enhances a conventional coming-of-age drama, not for the boy but for his grown-up uncles who've yet to acknowledge their God-given ages. The underdeveloped frame story continually diverts back to the past, though, where we're shown how Hub and Garth found romance, wealth, and intrigue in WWI-era Europe and Africa. These comically adventurous flashbacks borrow a page from Rob Reiner's The Princess Bride, and allow McCanlies the opportunity to let his hair down. Back in the present day, when he's got the likes of Caine and Duvall at his disposal, he's wise to place his faith in his actors and let them nurture the predictable fluff to full term.

Lions quietly carves away at the hardened exterior erected by the two old codgers until it unearths the audiences' heartstrings, then gives them a great big tug. Soft and edgeless, it's been polished to a dull gleam for audience consumption. McCanlies isn't afraid to guide his production into Hallmark territory, so we're destined for a happy ending, even if it pushes the boundaries of reality way past the point of acceptance. Certainly there are better existing projects for these two acting dynamos, but if this is what it takes to get Caine and Duvall together on screen, it will have to do.

The DVD includes a handful of deleted and alternate scenes,a commentary from director McCanlies, and the usual made-for-HBO documentaries and featurettes. The flipper disc offers both widescreen and fullscreen versions of the film.

Haley scares us. He really is a robot boy.


Comments

Secondhand Lions Rating

" Weak "

Rating: PG, 2003

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