'Secretariat' formulaic, but mixes thrills with the mush
Diane Lane, Nelsan Ellis, Otto Thorwarth and John Malkovich in Walt Disney Pictures' Secretariat.
Published Friday, October 8, 2010 10:18AM EDT
In a world of inspiring real-life sports stories, the tale of Secretariat is one of a kind. It's too bad the Hollywood version about the legendary racehorse is just another one of the pack.
"Secretariat" does what the horse and its caretakers never did on the way to Triple Crown glory in 1973. The movie plays it completely safe, offering a classy but standard Disney-fication of the tale, whose thrilling race scenes are offset by some of the blandest "you can do it if you try" dialogue you're likely to encounter on film.
Cheery performances from Diane Lane as the housewife-turned-horse-owner and John Malkovich as Secretariat's oddball trainer help rein in some of the movie's sentimental excesses.
Yet they're more cheerleaders than characters, rooting on the sidelines with utterly predictable slogans in an utterly predictable manner.
Formulaic storytelling is a given in most sports dramas, particularly those from Disney, which scored hits by following the recipe with such hopeful athletic sagas as "The Rookie" and "Miracle."
Still, sports flicks such as "Seabiscuit" or even last year's gooey "The Blind Side" manage to inspire while digging deeper into characters and offering something more than yet another pep rally for underdogs and unlikely heroes.
To be fair, "Secretariat" can be an exhilarating pep rally, especially in director Randall Wallace's rousing re-creations of the horse's runs in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, and particularly, a breathless finale at the Belmont Stakes.
And Lane, though limited by the greeting-card cliches of Mike Rich's screenplay, is a grandly indefatigable competitor as Penny Chenery, a Denver wife and mom who took over her family's Virginia stable from her dying father (Scott Glenn).
Needing a winner to turn around the stable's finances, Penny hires the flashy-dressing, sometimes cantankerous trainer Lucien Laurin (Malkovich) and banks her fortunes on Big Red, a chestnut thoroughbred that became an international sensation under his racing name, Secretariat.
The movie jumps hastily from the horse's birth to his unspectacular start on the race course, then settles in for a prolonged buildup to the Triple Crown bid.
With pluck and optimism that occasionally strains credibility, Lane's Penny overcomes every hurdle, hatching a savvy scheme to cover the stable's debts, nursing the horse through sickness, holding her family together amid the vexation of her husband (Dylan Walsh).
Lane and Malkovich forge a touching on-screen friendship, and it's especially nice to see him goof it up as the garish Laurin.
The genial supporting cast includes James Cromwell as a rival owner, Margo Martindale as Penny's assistant, Nelsan Ellis as the horse's groomer and real-life jockey Otto Thorwarth as Secretariat's rider.
Give credit also to the five horses used to play Secretariat in various guises, though the filmmakers cannot resist injecting petty human bluster into the four-legged co-stars. In one silly moment as they head toward the starting gate, Secretariat and his key opponent give each other such a taunting glare, you almost expect them to break out in a bout of trash-talking like heavyweights preparing for a title fight.
Anyone remotely familiar with the story of Secretariat knows the outcome before the movie begins, but that Belmont climax still is intoxicating to watch. There's little suspense once the race starts, yet for that moment, at least, we'll wager that almost everyone in the theatre will be glad they laid their money down on "Secretariat."
Two and a half stars out of four.