- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2003

“Secondhand Lions” clearly puts more trust in hand-me-down, not to mention broken-down, tear-jerking manipulation than a self-respecting picture rightly should. This maladroit attempt to generate inspirational family feeling in a vintage heartland setting is essentially a crock contrived to glorify a pair of old crocks from Texas, brothers named Garth and Hub, played by Michael Caine and Robert Duvall, respectively.

One summer day in the late 1950s, a shy and fatherless teenager named Walter — Haley Joel Osment entering an awkward age — is dropped in the laps of bachelor codgers Garth and Hub, identified as his great-uncles by a no-account mother (Kyra Sedgwick), a divorcee and man-chasing pathological liar who would prefer to get the child away from her amorous hunting grounds.

The boy’s shock and trepidation at this abandonment are comforted soon enough. An ironclad emotional bond forms between the crusty uncles and impressionable nephew, making it impossible for mom to sever ties when she returns, accompanied by an unsavory boyfriend. This snake in the grass has been attracted by family rumors that Garth and Hub are misers, hoarding a treasure that would humble Croesus. In fact, one of the peculiar elements in the family profile invented by writer-director Tim McCanlies is that greedy relatives talk quite openly of craving the treasure. Walter’s mom isn’t the only shameless vulture. The fact that Garth and Hub are both inhospitable and closemouthed doesn’t seem to discourage the practice.

Maybe one should consider it a running gag, similar to the medley of arrivals by salesmen who hope to pitch products to the brothers, who prefer to send them packing with warning shots while rocking on the front porch. Incredulous that the farm is without such amenities as a television, Walter negotiates a truce with the interlopers that also enhances his entertainment prospects: The uncles take a strong liking to a skeet-shooting machine and then start adding such distractions as a giraffe and a lion and a prefab monoplane, whose completion is anticipated in the prologue.



Walter also discovers that his uncles, particularly the more contemplative and talkative Garth, can be tapped for stories of their youthful travels and adventures, which supposedly commenced before World War I and peaked with Garth employed as a safari guide and Hub as a mercenary military adviser to Middle Eastern potentates.

Mr. McCanlies’ lack of experience with exotic, swashbuckling material is grievously exposed in the footage inserted to illustrate Garth’s yarns. The abiding platitude of the film is meant to flow out of these storybook fragments: “The things that may not be true are the things a man needs to believe most.” A debatable argument at best, but since Mr. McCanlies can’t direct his way out of a paper bag when simulating heroic extravagance, the pictorial case for flamboyance and fearlessness is never substantiated.

It’s possible that there’s an autobiographical component to the script, with Walter as the filmmaker’s hero-worshipping alter ego, but yearning rather than veracity appears to be the McCanlies specialty.

Playing along with the sappiness of “Secondhand Lions” will make it easier to find this masculine weeper tolerable, but Mr. McCanlies remains a rank amateur, shifting intolerable burdens of proof to the shoulders of his three principal players. Only Michael Caine seems adroit at ignoring the burden.

There is a certain novelty interest in watching Haley Joel Osment suddenly struggle with a role, but it would be more generous to wait out this phase than add it to the Osment memory album. Sometimes it’s just not pretty when precociousness fades.

*

TITLE: “Secondhand Lions”

RATING: PG (Fleeting profanity and comic vulgarity; fleeting violence in tongue-in-cheek flashbacks about martial exploits; an unsavory maternal character)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Tim McCanlies. Cinematography by Jack Green. Production design by David J. Bomba. Costume design by Gary Jones. Music by Patrick Doyle

RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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