Saturday, July 23, 2011

Cobbled Together

Okay, I know I said I was done with the recommendation titles for a while, and my Horrible Bosses review was a step in that direction. But despite there being a bevy of titles awaiting me in the local theaters (A Better Life, Winnie the Pooh, Friends with Benefits, Captain America: The First Avenger), I was thwarted by my worst nemesis: my schedule. I just haven't had the time to get away this past week, and this nice little heat wave is certainly doing me no favors by confronting my departure from air conditioned environs with a solid wave of hot. No civilized creature should have to trek out in the open, and if you don't understand where I'm coming from I'm not sure you ever can (I got some choice scorchings while visiting family in Florida recently, so I think I have a good idea what amount of heat the human body can handle). It has been a terror, though hopefully a mix of lighter temperatures plus a more beneficial schedule will open up my out-of-the-apartment questing in the near future. Until then, it's another dip into the bag with 2003's Secondhand Lions. I briefly remember when this film was released, as it carried top-tier talent such as Michael Caine and Robert Duvall, not the mention a post-peak appearance by one-time Oscar nominee Haley Joel Osmet. But it was far from the center of my attention (as was the case for most people) and I didn't bother with it. Enter my friend Anne who recently has made it her duty to expand my cinematic horizons. And so this film makes its way back into my immediate perimeter, with a plot that includes drama, laughs and wildlife of both the two and four-legged variety.

Yeah, this is kinda what Florida was like...
When young Walter (Osmet) is forced by his absentee mother to spend the summer with her two uncles Hub (Duvall) and Garth (Caine) at their isolated Texas ranch, he is as miserable as they are to have him suddenly thrust on them without warning. Worse, his mother wants him to spy on her reclusive uncles, since it's rumored that the two are filthy rich my unknown means. Walter has been seeded to root out and discover where the two old men keep their money, but the boy doesn't want anything to do with his mother's treacherous ways. He just wants to get the summer over with, but before he does, he will learn the secret history of his family, a story his great uncles have never told anyone in decades.

The best friends a country bumpkin could have
Much of Secondhand Lions is not unlike a fairy tale, where a boy is transported to a magical land and learns much about life and living through the experiences he encounters. Such is as it is for Walter, whose uncles could hardly be called normal. Hub and Garth are an odd duo; they stake out their front porch with shotguns waiting to pepper the vehicles of traveling salesmen who would enter their property, build (and fly) antique biplanes and perform stunts, and purchase their own formerly-owned African animals to host a hunt on their land. That's interesting enough, but everything really gets your attention when Garth begins to tell Walter about their past, which are not all that different from the best parts of my favorite Tim Burton film Big Fish. Using parody of old-school comics like Prince Valiant, Garth tells of a much younger Hub who joins the French Foreign Legion and can battle thirty men at once. These flashbacks are hardly top of the line, but they are different enough from the rest of the film to be appropriately dream-like, which is good since we're never secure in the knowledge of whether they are accurate of fictional until the very end. Even the modern-day scenery has a bit of far-away land in it, as the ranch feels alien to any who've never lived in the middle of nowhere. This is especially true when the more fantastical creatures begin to inhabit the corn stalks.

Sure, my brother's English, but what else is new?
The cast are certainly a lively bunch, keeping in step with the constantly-shifting boundaries of the story. Osmet is a bit past his prime (odd to say about someone born seven years after me) and barely hanging on to the "cute kid" image that made him a household name in The Sixth Sense, made just four years earlier. His voice is starting to change, he's awkward in both right and wrong ways, and like it or not you likely won't see him in these roles anymore. At least he seems to be hanging around in the voice acting biz, hopefully ensuring that his career doesn't entirely emulate the Frankie Muniz route. Robert Duvall continues to prove himself as a compelling actor, as even a relatively lesser role here is beefed up by his not inconsiderable talents. Though he is portrayed as being larger than life, Hub never becomes so inhuman that he's unbelievable, which can be attributed to Duvall's ability to make any character remarkably human. Of all the characters, he is the one that best carries the film. Michael Caine might seem like an odd casting choice for the role of a Texan farmer, but then again, he's Michael Caine. His career choices might not have always been at their peak (I'm thinking On Deadly Ground, but there's plenty to choose from), but he's also fricking Michael Caine. He can act his ass off when he tries, and while he's not at his best here, he does do better than most actual American actors would have done in the same role. Acting as the film's narrator for much of the story, his steady tenor instills even more fairy tale into the story, which is probably why he was cast in the first place.

Arguing over who should get top billing on this production...
If there's fault with Secondhand Lions, it is the film's trend toward schmaltz as an art form, creating some of the stickiest sap known to man. This is I'm sure in part to the feature film inexperience of the man in charge, Tim McCanlies, who also wrote the screenplay. Known more as a television screenwriter, McCanlies has had few opportunities to stand out as a film director (anyone who can even name another McCanlies movie might be immediately congratulated and abandoned), and while his work here isn't at all bad, one must wonder if this is in fact the high water mark of his talent. Like Osmet's chances of another Academy Award nomination, McCanlies might never get any better than this, and while Secondhand Lions is GOOD, it's a title that is carried by the strengths of its cast and storytelling that greatly evokes a sense of wonder, while its intangibles feel a bit creaky and well-worn, like a bridge about to collapse beneath your feet. In the end, Secondhand Lions is not unlike the surprise the brothers receive when they open that animal-containing crate: good and a lot of fun, but not the way you imagined it would be. If you want a fun, cheap film to see, look no further.

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