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SECONDHAND LIONS (director/writer: Tim McCanlies; cinematographer: Jack N. Green; editor: David Moritz; music: Patrick Doyle; cast: Michael Caine (Garth McCann), Robert Duvall (Hub McCann), Haley Joel Osment (Walter Caldwell), Kyra Sedgwick (Walter’s mom/Mae Caldwell), Emmanuelle Vaugier (Princess Jasmine), Josh Lucas (Adult Walter), Nicky Katt (Stan), Christian Kane (Young Hub), Kevin Haberer (Young Garth); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: David Kirschner/Scott Ross/Corey Sienega; New Line Cinema; 2003)
“Overly sentimental hoedown in schlock.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Everything is secondhand about this affable but unbearably boring family entertainment coming-of-age comedy/drama of a 12-year-old boy dumped by his chippy mom to live with his gruff two elderly eccentric ‘good-ol’-boy’ uncles for the summer–with the further catch being they have to live with no modern conveniences in their rundown Central Texas rural farm. The film is set in the summer in the early ’60s. It comes with a schmaltzy message about these three rejects helping each other to become better people (ugh!), with the kid being the catalyst for the change so that some real life lessons can be learned by all. Though “Secondhand Lions” does indeed feature an ailing old rejected zoo lion that has to be nursed back to health, the title actually refers to the two old timers.

The only thing that’s first-hand is all the crap, or is that the Texas-sized corn it steps over! An industry publication listed it in “The Ten Best Scripts Never Made into a Movie” and stated that “Secondhand Lions was number one. I would take exception with that publication. This script by Tim McCanlies was collecting dust on the shelf for many years because McCanlies never directed before and no studio wished to take a chance on having him, at his insistence, direct. It seems hard to believe that McCanlies is the same one who authored the script for the more biting Iron Giant, which earned him the right to do this overly sentimental hoedown in schlock.

It was an effort sitting through this unfunny and blandly spun yarn. The film is further damaged by all the supposedly inoffensive cute shots of the uncles and kid and Disney-like farm animals. The story was so lamely presented that its appeal is not to kids or adults, but is mired in secondhand nostalgia. It should appeal to those who like to see two great veteran actors like Michael Caine and Robert Duvall and a young potential great actor Haley Joel Osment (star of “The Sixth Sense”), who is 14 when the film was shot but is now 15, mix it up together. But since everything is false about this story, the acting becomes only an exercise and their thespian skills are squandered in the Texas dust. The film takes it for granted that having so much talent on the screen, guarantees a hit. Apparently, the only thing it guarantees is a big box-office.

The McCann brothers, the older storytelling Garth (Caine) and the rugged adventurer Hub (Duvall), hardly bat an eye when irresponsible mom Mae (Sedgwick) drops off her shy son Walter (Osment) to spend the summer with them, even though they are inexperienced with children. Mom is familiar with the rumors circulating that the two in their wild youth were possible bank robbers or mob-connected and that there’s a treasure hidden somewhere in their farm. The single mom hopes Walter can find the money, or that she can land a rich guy or make something of herself.

After the kid has an uneasy start adjusting to his strange uncles, he naturally bonds with them. His uncles have just returned to Texas after 40 years of adventures abroad, and are hanging around without a purpose waiting to die. Walter comes to admire their peculiar ways and accepts their playfulness to shoot their rifles for fun at traveling salesman who approach the farm despite all the no trespass signs posted. The septuagenarians tell of their colorful past, as the film uses flashbacks and younger actors to show the two in action in the war-torn Europe of 1914 and from there shanghaied into the French Foreign Legion. That leads to their many adventures in North Africa and the great love of Hub’s life with the gorgeous Princess Jasmine. She’s someone Hub stole from a wealthy sheik and rescued from a harem. The kid has heard lies from mom all his life, but delights on hearing the tall tales told by his relatives and slowly begins to take his first tender steps in manhood. The film points out that not all lies are bad, that there are some lies at certain times that are helpful to believe in. For instance, it’s good to believe in “good triumphing over evil,” even if that isn’t always true. I guess it’s good also to believe in superheroes, Santa Claus, and the swashbuckling adventures of these grumpy codgers.

If there weren’t enough symbols already in place another is presented when the old timers purchase a rejected sickly zoo lion for hunting. The jungle beast is in need of love just like all of them. Everyone here gets a second chance to be complete, as the lion settles in the cornfield and has a smile of relief on her face for being allowed out of the cage.

The kid watches in awe as Uncle Hub beats up four teenage bullies and gives them a pep talk on what it’s like to be a man. I guess the point is that action speaks louder than words, and even if you are old you should still punch bullies around to make your point. There’s also some more lame comedy derived from Uncle Hub sleepwalking in his old-fashioned pajamas late at night, as Walter is told it is dangerous to wake him.

At least the three actors seemed to be having fun working together on this 53-day shoot, whether you will is another story. It’s probably an easy payday for the veteran actors, in a forgettable film that thrives on being inoffensive and fetching. Britisher Caine had a dialogue coach (he was cast in the film as one of the traveling salesmen) help with the Texas accent required, as he seems to have gotten the hang of it for most of the film only slipping out of it occasionally.

It might be of interest to note, as many other film critics have already pointed out, that the comic strips drawn by grown-up Walter were actually done by “Bloom County” and “Outland” creator Berkley Breathed.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”