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Review : 'Secondhand Lions' Roars

by Jeff Strickler, Star Tribune

September 19th, 2003

Copyright © 2003 ,

Please be sure to read the original article



"Secondhand Lions" might be the king of the family-film jungle. Although it might be too complex for viewers under the age of, say, 8, it will delight anyone under 108.
The allure starts with two of the greatest characters to appear on the screen in years. And they're played by two of the greatest actors, Robert Duvall and Michael Caine. Haley Joel Osment provides admirable support.

There's something for everyone: comedy, drama and romance. There are swashbuckling adventures, silly stories and wild animals. It's funny one minute, touching the next and always entertaining. Granted, we know where the movie is going right from the opening frame, but we don't care because the journey is so much fun.

The story is set in the 1960s on a ranch in the middle of Nowhere, Texas. Fourteen-year-old Walter (Osment) is dumped on his two eccentric great uncles for the summer. They have no phone, no TV and no neighbor within miles. Unless Walter can learn to whittle, it's going to be a long visit.

Hub (Duvall) and Garth (Caine) aren't any happier about the situation than Walter. Two cantankerous old men who are set in their eccentric ways, they're in no mood for company.

"If you need something, get it yourself," one growls. "Better yet, learn to do without."
Hub and Garth have a particular distrust of relatives. Rumor has it that they have a stash of money -- perhaps millions -- tucked away. Nobody knows where the money came from. Some say they were bank robbers; another story ties them to Al Capone. And no one knows where the money is, although nosy shirttail relatives keep showing up trying to find out.

Let's get the obvious out of the way: Yes, Walter eventually is going to crack through the old goats' crusty facades and discover that they really are loving and caring. And Hub and Garth are going to discover that Walter really doesn't care whether they have money; he likes them for themselves.

Even though the plot is vintage formula, nothing else is. Sure, one of Hollywood's mainstay stereotypes is the character who pretends to be cranky but really has a heart of gold. But these guys, especially Hub, aren't pretending. They really are cranky. They snap at each other when no one else is around to yell at. When Hub goes into town and picks a fight, we're sure that it's not the first time -- or, likely, the last.
The movie was written and directed by Tim McCanlies, whose 1998 comic-drama "Dancer, Texas, Pop. 81" is considered a classic portrait of small-town Americana. There's nothing to indicate that the story is autobiographical. But we have to believe that McCanlies, who grew up in Texas in the 1960s, knew real-life versions of Hub and Garth. They're too tangible to be completely fictional.

Duvall and Caine know the characters, too. They're the older versions of roles the actors have played for years. Garth is Caine's character from "Alfie" as a retiree. Duvall's Hub is a gray-haired cousin of his domineering father in "The Great Santini."
Overlooked in "Pay It Forward" and wasted in "A.I.," Osment proves that he can do more than just play cute. Walter is made up of various layers, all of them interesting. He's shy but observant. He appears vulnerable, but when pushed, has a surprising toughness.

The narrative is an assemblage of bits and pieces. Life on the ranch is a series of quirky events, including the time when Garth and Hub buy a lion from a zoo in hopes of setting it loose and staging a private safari in their cornfields. But the lion turns out to be old and frail.

"It's defective," Garth mopes.

He agrees to let Walter keep it as a pet.

Garth periodically entertains Walter with a story about the years he and Hub supposedly spent in the French Foreign Legion. The tale, enacted on the screen, unfolds like a 1940s B-movie, full of sword fights, horses dashing across sand dunes and villainous strangers. Walter has trouble believing any of it, but he's always disappointed when the story sessions come to an end.

We can relate. We wish "Secondhand Lions" wouldn't end, either.

Secondhand Lions

**** out of four stars

The setup: A shy 14-year-old is sent to spend the summer with two eccentric relatives.

What works: The relatives -- cranky old men played by Robert Duvall and Michael Caine -- are among the most entertaining characters of the year.

What doesn't: The story's resolution is predictable.

Great line: "If we die during the night, you'll have to fend for yourself in the morning."

Rating: PG; fisticuffs, adult themes


Our favourite critic , Jeff Strickler of Star Tribune, who wrote this excellent review, has also named Secondhand Lions as one of his Top Ten films of 2003 . Be sure to read his excellent article , dated 28th December 2003 , at . Thanks , Jeff ! We could not agree with you more !



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