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Secondhand Lions (R)
New Line Cinema
Official Site
Director: Tim McCanlies
Producers: David Kirschner, Scott Ross, Corey Sienega
Written by: Tim McCanlies
Cast: Robert Duvall, Michael Caine, Haley Joel Osment, Kyra Sedgwick, Nicky Katt, Josh Lucas, Michael O’Neill, Emmanuelle Vaugier

Rating: out of 5

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 rip-off.

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.

—Nancy Semin


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