If you believe the movies, coming of age is the single most important thing that can happen to a person. And maybe it is. Certainly enough stories are told about that transition from naïve child into somewhat more jaded adult. Secondhand Lions follows the rather familiar template of coming-of-age movies. It begins with a short prologue set in modern day before flashing back to a golden-hued time of yesteryear. Lots of events happen that turn an innocent boy into a more worldly, slightly-older boy. Then we return to present-day in the last five minutes where a different actor plays the boy as an adult so we can see just how much better his life is for having lived through the story we’ve just seen.
Haley Joel Osment stars as Walter who, in the early 1960’s, is temporarily abandoned by his flighty mother Mae (Kyra Sedgwick). She drops him off at the farm of two long-lost great uncles in Texas. He doesn’t know them, they don’t know him. Somehow Mae convinces them to take Walter in. Before she drives away, she tells her son that the uncles are rumored to have millions of dollars stashed somewhere on the premises; if he could find it, that would be just dandy.
Do they really have all that cash? It’s hard to say. They’re not easy men to read. Garth (Michael Caine) has lots to talk about but one can’t always be sure how much he exaggerates the truth. Hub (Robert Duvall) is quite open about the fact that he doesn’t want anyone to know much about his life. Inquiries are met with unmistakable hostility.
Secondhand Lions has a storybook quality to it that is both a blessing and a curse. During a particularly memorable college English class, a professor suggested that the narrator of a story we were reading might not have been reliable; in other words, the tale being told might not exactly be true. Well, the movie has this same quality. Garth tells Walter a story about how they were shanghaied into the French Foreign Legion, where Hub encountered his great love, a sheik’s fiancée named Jasmine. Winning her love meant engaging in a hefty amount of swashbuckling in order to get rid of the sheik. Walter is fascinated and assumes the story is true. We in the audience are not so sure, however.
The problem is that the story wasn’t good enough to make me care, or to really enlighten me about either man. The rest of the movie has that same quality. A series of things happen that shape young Walter: he befriends a lion, the uncles shoot rifles at traveling salesmen for fun, relatives show up looking for the money, Hub buys an airplane to assemble despite the fact that he has never flown, and so on. All these strange goings-on serve to open Walter’s eyes to the world. I just never knew whether the movie was giving it to me straight or not. The movie is clearly structured as a memory held by the adult Walter; however, it’s filled with so many moments of eccentricity that I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to take it all seriously or just laugh. Is the movie a heartwarming coming-of-age film or a parody of one?
I wonder, too, about the ending (no spoilers, I promise). Walter has grown up to be a cartoonist who pens a strip about a young boy and his imaginary lion friend. This took me by surprise, as there is nothing within the story to suggest that Walter had any interest in drawing or cartooning. Or even that he had much of an imagination. It comes out of nowhere, yet writer/director Tim McCanlies makes a pretty big deal out of it. The end credits are even superimposed over examples of Walter’s works. Somehow it seems like something is missing here: young Walter and adult Walter in no way seem like the same person. There have been rumors that Secondhand Lions is based on the life of Bill Watterson, who created the popular boy-and-his-tiger comic “Calvin and Hobbes.” If this is so, shouldn’t the movie have given us some indication that Walter was interested in such a career? And if not, then what is the reason for having a red herring of this magnitude?
I must be honest in saying that I simply didn’t know what to make of this film. What’s on the screen is not bad at all; it was just difficult for me to buy into. Everything that happened was a little too eccentric, a little too contrived. There was no emotional payoff for that reason. What I did like was the cast. Duvall, Caine, and Osment are wonderfully talented actors. They generate such good will that they almost pulled this film off anyway. It’s hard not to be connected in some way to performers of this caliber, even when the movie around them is a little too strange for its own good. At the end, though, solid performances can’t quite fill in the gaps. Secondhand Lions may have its supporters, but I’m not quite on board. I never understood how seriously the film wanted me to take it.
( 1/2 out of four)
Note: Looking back at my own review, I have found it woefully inadequate in describing why I was so confounded by this movie. I apologize to the reader, but I also suggest that this inability to explain it is fully indicative of the problem.
Secondhand Lions is rated PG for thematic material, language and action violence. The running time is 1 hour and 47 minutes.
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