|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 03 February 2004|
As can be seen by the long list of extras, New Line Home Entertainment has given “Secondhand Lions” the deluxe “Platinum Series” treatment. The trouble is that the movie itself doesn’t warrant this approach. It’s not without some value—a movie with this cast would have to be worth watching at least once—but overall, it’s a disappointment. A warm human comedy should center on believable characters, but those in “Secondhand Lions” are all too clearly carefully manufacturered to be loveable. The three leads have few real flaws and only a handful of artificial-feeling traits. Even actors as good as Caine and Duvall have to have material to develop, but writer-director Tim McCanlies lets them down.
In his ingratiating, rapid-fire commentary track and in the several documentaries, McCanlies (co-writer of “The Iron Giant”) says that this was a very personal project. He based it somewhat on the relationship that as a boy he had with his grandfather; young Tim was often dropped off to spend a few weeks with the evidently salty old Texan, and McCanlies intended the film to be a tribute to his granddad. He wrote the script some ten years before it was filmed in 2002, and resisted studio efforts to “improve” it, such as making the two old men in the story literally Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in their dotage. Another idea was to star Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau and make it “Grumpy Old Men 3.” And always the studio wanted another director.
McCanlies stubbornly rejected all of these ideas, and held on tightly to the property until New Line, flushed with their “Lord of the Rings” triumphs, decided to take a chance on the whole package. This, as it turned out, may have been an error, since McCanlies as director, while competent, tends to miss many of the values in his script, and then to misjudge the impact the movie had on test audiences.
For example, in the “deleted/altered scenes” section, a completely different ending is included. While that ending goes on too long (the grown-up teenage hoods should have been cut), it’s a better, warmer and more satisfying ending than on the released version. It’s not a good idea to include on a DVD cut scenes that are superior to those you included in the final print. Also, McCanlies doesn’t make clear the two time periods in which most of the movie is set. The commentary track tells us most of the movie is set around 1962, but the cars we see are generally older than that. The bookend sequences, with Josh Lucas playing the adult version of Haley Joel Osment’s characters, must be set in the 1990s, but again, this just is not clear. There are other problems as indicated below.
Mae (Kyra Sedgwick) is a cheerful good-time girl we meet as she’s driving her 12-year-old son Walter (Osment) to stay with her two uncles, Garth (Caine) and Hub (Duvall) McCann. On the way to the ramshackle old ranch building, Mae tells Walter that the two uncles had been gone for 40 years, and are rumored to have millions of dollars stashed away somewhere on the ranch. She wants Walter to find the money.
The uncles, evidently retired from whatever it is they did for those 40 years, hey live way out at the end of a long side road which is adorned with warning signs ranging from “beware of rabid dogs and a pig” to threats of nuclear contamination. The signs are old and weathered—a strongly misleading clue.
Hub and Garth are old and weathered too, first seen shooting catfish in their shallow lake. They’re not happy to see Mae, and even less happy that she’s leaving Walter with them. But they sigh and carry on, expecting the apprehensive boy to adjust to their way of living. Mostly, this consists of them sitting on the front porch, sipping iced tea, and shooting shotguns at the traveling salesmen who happen by. They do have a pack of adopted stray dogs, and a pet pig, all of which immediately take to Walter. They also seem to have chickens, but we never hear them, and only once see a rooster, standing on the pig.
A family of greedy other relatives shows up, annoyed to see Walt installed on the ranch. They’re even more annoyed when another salesman manages to get Hub and Garth to spend what the relatives see as their money on a skeet-shooting disc launcher.
Walt is surprised to see old Hub sleepwalk in his nightgown down to the pond, gazing out over the water. So he asks Garth to tell him what all that is about, and who the woman is in the picture Walt’s found in his tower bedroom. This launches a series of flashbacks to the youthful adventures of Garth and Hub in Europe and, after they’re shanghaied into the French Foreign Legion, in North Africa. Dashing adventurers—think Indiana Jones crossed with Errol Flynn—they have many adventures. In the course of them, Hub, always the more impetuous brother, falls in love with Arabian princess Jasmine (Emmanuelle Vaugnier). There are captures, escapes and swordfights galore. But Garth allows as to how maybe Walt doesn’t really believe these tales.
Walt has also heard here and there that his uncles were bank robbers, or maybe worked for Al Capone. They had to get the money somewhere, of course. He also helps them tend a garden which is unexpectedly seeded only with corn (this is hard to believe; corn seed is corn kernels, which look like nothing else). He’s aghast when they buy a lion just to shoot it, but the lioness delievered turns out to be old and feeble, of little harm to anyone. It becomes Walt’s pal; he names it Jasmine and gives it a home in the field of corn.
The idea, of course, is that living with the two crusty old brothers is a life-changing, life-affirming experience for young Walter. And he helps them, too. The commentary and documentaries insist that Garth and Walter have come to their home ranch to wait for death. But the movie itself does nothing to indicate this important idea; we simply don’t know why they’re hanging around. Also, supposedly they’ve just recently returned to the family ranch, but the weathered signs and their general attitude (and the condition of the house) suggests they’ve lived there for decades. We’re supposed to find Garth’s (and later Hub’s) tales of adventures in North Africa unbelievable, but since we are shown these, and not shown the brothers in an alternate activity, we have no reason not to accept the stories as the truth—Walter certainly does. They’re supposed to be heightened, exaggerated, fantasy-like, but they look very much like the rest of the movie. Some of the deleted scenes were intended to establish doubt about the Africa tales, but the scenes were, after all, deleted.
Everything about the movie seems calculated to be heart-warming family-movie fare. The tough old brothers, their pack of assorted (but all cute) dogs, the friendly pig, the old lion, their shooting at annoying salesmen, the hostile relatives (don’t they have any nice ones other than Walt?), the picturesquely ramshackle farmhouse, the colorful African adventures—these all feel manufactured, written, carefully planned to please. The brothers aren’t even allowed any irritating traits other than, in one scene, chawing tobacco. We welcome them firing at the salesmen, but salesmen are (here, literally) safe targets. This movie jumps into your lap, licks your face, and wiggles all over to show you how gosh-darned cute and charming it is.
Of course, it didn’t have to be that way. Caine, here doing a very good Texas accent, is a great actor, one of the best we have; Duvall, likewise. And the two clearly enjoy working together, as well as with young Osment. The movie was, wisely, shot in sequence, so as Walt’s fondness for his uncles grows, it’s matched by Osment’s increasing fondness for Caine and Duvall. It’s as if McCanlies as director didn’t really trust the material handed him by McCanlies the writer. Everything is overblown, bigger than life, but it’s also very little like real life.
Duvall and Caine do a good job of establishing both the similarities between the brothers, and the differences. They aren’t the same old guy. This is very welcome, and one of McCanlies’ best ideas. A bad one was to make the adult Walter the creator of a comic strip, “Walter and Jasmine,” about a boy and his lion, uncomfortably similar to “Calvin and Hobbes.” The artwork we see is by Berkeley Breathed.
It’s a handsome production, with photography by the great Jack Green. The DVD includes both the widescreen and “fullscreen” versions of the movie, but why anyone would deliberately ignore Green’s excellent compositions is a mystery to me. The film was shot in Texas, and there are plenty of big-prairie, big-sky shots, but the movie isn’t really about Texas or Texans. These old guys could be anywhere in rural USA of the period.
The extras, as mentioned above, are plentiful; the two longest documentaries, one on how the film came to be made, the other on the shooting of the picture, are well-done but slick in a slightly off-putting manner. Osment has a feature to himself, confidently describing his attitudes toward acting, very aware that he’s in the process of moving from child to adult actor.
The music includes some contemporary renditions of Bob Wills classics, and in general has more of the flavor of Texas than the rest of the movie. The sound is standard, though the opening sequence (with the brothers blasting catfish) makes inventive use of right-channel sound. You might think someone’s out in the kitchen shooting fish.
As a DVD package, “Secondhand Lions” is a model of present-day technology and ideas about features. No, the movie isn’t actually bad, it’s basically reasonably well done, but the more we see of the (energetic and lively) Africa sequences, the more the movie loses focus. It’s artificial when it should have been natural, calculated when it should have seemed spontaneous. You want more from a movie that teams these three leads.