Secondhand Lions (2003) / Comedy-Adventure

MPAA Rated: PG for thematic material, language and violence
Running Time: 103 min.

Cast: Haley Joel Osment, Robert Duvall, Michael Caine, Kyra Sedgwick, Nicky Katt, Josh Lucas  
Director: Tim McCanlies

Screenplay: Tim McCanlies
Review published March 18, 2004

Although I'm giving Secondhand Lions a marginally negative review, I will admit, I did like many parts of the film quite a bit.   In fact, I was quit entertained throughout most of it, confident that I'd be writing a positive review once it was all through.  Alas, it was not to be, because for all of Secondhand Lions charm and amusement, there just wasn't enough going for it to take it through the dark patches in the later scenes.  Just because it's quaint and lively, doesn't quite give it the depth necessary to deliver during the attempted emotional payoff at the end.

The film starts off briefly in the present day, with an older Walter, played by Josh Lucas (Sweet Home Alabama, The Hulk), receiving a message containing some apparent sad news, which has him reminiscing about his younger years during the 1950s, when he first met his great uncles, Garth (Caine, The Italian Job) and hub (Duvall, Assassination Tango).  Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense, A.I.) portrays young Walter, ditched by his mother (Sedgwick, Singles) with his uncles because she hopes her son will find the millions of dollars they are rumored to have stashed somewhere on the premises of their large farm.  The two older men are an eccentric duo, wary of the relatives who have come trying to schmooze them out of some cash or a share in the will, but they soon take a liking to young Walter all the same.  Walter is immediately captivated by stories of their past, and their great adventures over the years, making them the brave old coots he grows to admire.

First, the good stuff.  For most of the film, there is a light, irreverent tone that makes even the corniest of scenes work, with terrific chemistry provided by Caine and Duvall.  It's a colorful film with cartoonish but likeable characters, and the flashback sequences add some good visuals to break up the sparseness of life on the farm.  There's some choice cinematography by Jack N. Green (Twister, Unforgiven) complemented by a nice score from Patrick Doyle (Bridget Jones' Diary, Gosford Park).  It's not flawless, but the graciousness of the stars and the outlandish situations keeps the fun at a level where we don't mind the contrivances.

Like many sentimental films, the fun gets ditched as the film nears its end, and Secondhand Lions takes things a little further out than is probably warranted.  There is one particular scene where young Walter is physically abused by one of the characters, in a scene that makes very little sense.  Abhorrently distasteful, it detracts from the good cheer the film had built up to that point.  It's also during this scene that the film begins to show all of its logic holes.  The whole premise of the boy finding the money to spill the beans on his great uncles is a flimsy one at best, especially the way in which it finally comes into play.  To add insult to injury, the final scene, while taking us back to the beginning, adds one additional epilogue that is supposed to clear up whether or not the lives of Hub and Garth were as they said they were.  From a storytelling standpoint, there should have been a better, more poetic way of doing this.  In fact, it actually raises more questions than it answers, which is probably the opposite intended effect of such a revelation.

With many emotional tales, a fine line is tread between charm and schmaltz, so this is strictly a movie that leads with its heart rather than its head.  It's the kind of movie I'd recommend for a young person, or the young at heart, but more discriminating movie-goers will probably nitpick too much to enjoy it for what it is (I'm including myself in this).  It's a near-miss, and I would love to give it a recommendation, but when it comes to my reviews, even with heartfelt family films, I tend to lead with my head.

Qwipster's rating:

2004 Vince Leo