My confession straight up: I initially thought Secondhand
Lions would be a charmer, but I was duped by the trailers.
For the past four months, the previews that screened before
huge summer blockbusters treated viewers to funny clips about
two old guys forced to baby-sit their teenage nephew. The
old guys are eccentric and set in their ways and the nephew
is a lovable kid who eventually breaks down their cranky façades
and brings joy to their hearts. You might be thinking that
description alone makes the film seem trite and uninteresting,
but Secondhand Lions also offers up a cast of fine
actors, Hollywood veterans who know what they’re doing and
would never, I tell you, never get involved with a
dumb script. I’m taking about Robert Duvall and Michael
Caine, and to boot Secondhand Lions also featured
Haley Joel Osment, that up-and-coming kid actor from
The Sixth Sense and AI. It had all the makings
of a quality Hollywood hit.
What a sucker I was. But I won’t take all the blame. I blame
Robert Duvall and Michael Caine. What in God’s name are they
thinking? Why would two distinguished film actors besmirch
their illustrious filmographies with utterly unredeemable
junk? And that young kid, well, I always thought he was overrated
to begin with. But Duvall and Caine simply have no excuses.
Sure, they’re getting on in years, but there are plenty of
juicy, interesting roles left for these guys. They don’t need
to settle for some two-bit, cheese-dick Grumpy Old Men
The plot seemed straight up: Set in the 1950s , Walter (Osment)
is a poor hapless kid whose flaky, floozy mom, Mae (Sedgwick),
drops him off to live with her great-uncles, Garth and Hub
(Caine and Duvall) in their huge, dilapidated house somewhere
in rural Texas. It’s a temporary arrangement while she’s off
to court reporting school, and she assures Walter she will
be back soon. We all know she’s lying; even Walter senses
this, but after dumping the kid on the doorstep, she takes
off, leaving him with two great uncles who spend their leisure
time scaring off traveling salesmen with shotgun blasts.
But fear not, for in the blink of an eye Walter befriends
his odd uncles, who, by the way, never seem to worry about
money because they supposedly have a huge stash of cash hidden
somewhere on the farm. The problem is no one knows how they
got their money, but there’s certainly a lot of talk. Were
they bank robbers in the 1930s or did they get their fortune
from a vengeful sheik they encountered while fighting in the
French Foreign Legion during the First World War? I didn’t
pull that second theory out of my ass, that’s the fanciful
story Garth weaves to Walter who becomes his enthusiastic
listener of tales from days gone by.
The actual existence of this pile of cash remains something
of a mystery, and yet Hub and Garth could hardly be considered
spendthrifts. They seem like crusty old tightwads, but in
addition to four dogs and a pig, one day a new addition comes
by way of a truck that rolls down the dusty road to the farm
and deposits a caged lion on the front lawn. The lion, it
turns out was purchased secondhand from a Missouri zoo and
Hub and Garth have big plans for an impromptu safari. They
excitedly get their guns and instruct Walter to open up the
cage, and they proceed to aim their weapons. But their “safari”
is a fiasco as the sickly lion simply refuses to leave the
cage. So Hub and Garth pass the old beast off to Walter who
pledges to take good care of his new pet. The lion, we’re
supposed to believe, offers more affection and companionship
to Walter than he has ever seen from his neglectful mother.
So Secondhand Lions becomes a metaphor for the ability
to love cast-offs and rejects. Walter dearly loves his new
lion buddy, and in turn he loves and is loved by the elderly
Garth and Hub. B-O-R-I-N-G.
And then Mae returns with a scumbag boyfriend (Nicky Katt)
in tow. Naturally she has come to take back her son, who finally
has found stability and happiness with his curmudgeonly uncles.
And naturally Mae wants to know if Walter has discovered where
the secret pile of money is hidden. That’s the big crescendo.
Okay, so it was trite and uninteresting from the start, and
I am still a big sucker. But I still can’t forgive Caine and
Duvall. In fact, the biggest problem with Secondhand Lions
is wasted talent, hamstrung by a script that never allows
any single character to develop. In fact, this is not even
a film, really, I kid you not. It’s actually closer to an
outline. It’s like someone made a pitch for a screenplay but
never bothered to pencil in the bulk of the dialogue. We’re
left with a series of short scenes where the actors are never
allowed to catch their breath, much less develop any character.
Duvall and Caine are simply left with little material to work
with so that, even if they had been upstaged by kid actors
and animal props, (which they’re not) it probably would have
been a blessing.