**½/**** Image A- Sound A Extras A+
starring Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, Haley Joel Osment, Kyra Sedgwick
written and directed by Tim McCanlies
by Walter Chaw A conservative imperialist fable, the peculiar Secondhand Lions can't quite decide between the polarizing siren songs of the NRA and the AARP. Scylla and Charybdis had nothing on the rock and a hard place of the two most powerful lobbies in the United States, so it was only a matter of time before an ostensible children's film (set in Texas, natch) founded on the tenets of old people shooting guns at young people (and waxing rhapsodic about their days oppressing the dark-skinned denizens of sandy places) stumbled onto the silvering screen starring, naturally, Robert Duvall and, unnaturally, Michael Caine. Speaking of unnatural, Osment, taking his first tentative steps into adult Method hell, looks a little like a poorly articulated marionette engaged in a puppet theatre where the only instruction is mad, mechanical gesticulation. To see him react to a door closing is akin to watching someone get defibrillated.
Still, the hurdy-gurdy of Osment's performance, highlighted in just too many cutaways and reaction shots by writer-director Tim McCanlies, fits into the fantasy of a perverse Americana favoured by Secondhand Lions--a looking glass closet land where mothers are verboten, the relationship between two old "uncles" who've lived together for close to a century isn't seen askance as some kind of long-time companionship, and the sole positive female figure is a broken-down, toothless old circus animal. If I didn't know better, and if the film hadn't ended so family values, I'd have mistaken this for a right-wing homo-madness reel. The only thing missing from McCanlies's Grant Wood-cum-Addams Family-cum-Norman Rockwell portrait is Duvall dressed up in a Santa Claus suit, guzzling a bottle of Coke (maybe it's on the cutting room floor, as Osment's character does, at one point, discover an unexplained Santa suit)--marking Secondhand Lions as one of the more bizarre uplift pictures in recent memory. When the old coots plant a vegetable garden only to discover that every row is corn, it says almost all there is to be said about the whole weird, disquieting, ironic shooting match.
Taciturn Walter (Osment), who will one day grow up to be Berkeley Breathed, is abandoned by his painted harlot of a mother (Kyra Sedgwick, slowly making a name for herself as the new Lolita Davidovich) at the ramshackle Texas farm of uncles Hub (Duvall) and Garth (Caine) so that he might, surreptitiously, uncover the location of a hidden cache of millions. Are the old codgers bank robbers in the Newton Boys tradition, or are they, as they'd have it, men who would be king, wooing Arab women while seeking their fortunes in the foreign legion? Secondhand Lions is about the magic hour of childhood when both explanations are possible and romantic, marking the film as one of those heart-warming coming-of-age stories that gets away with murder because it's told from a child's demented point-of-view. Funnier would be a film told from the old bastards' senile point-of-view: armies of angry pancakes, hordes of marauding underpants.
So Walter becomes a man under the kind tutelage of two of the elderly insane, considering going Vegan while nursing an old lion (three old lions, get it?) back to health along the way and, in the framing story, getting to discover Big Fish-style that all that glitters is, in fact, gold. Meanwhile, the mother receives her deserved comeuppance offstage with an abusive huckster (what woman who makes bad choices doesn't deserve to get thrashed and terrorized, I ask you?), thus there aren't any narrative surprises in Secondhand Lions--just ones lurking in the subtext.
McCanlies seems to be obsessed with male relationships. His previous directorial effort Dancer, Texas Pop. 81 is four WB hunks sitting around "The View"-style discussing their problems, while his most well-known work, the script for The Iron Giant, finds the child of a single mother winning a father figure in the form of a giant, monosyllabic robot (typecast as Vin Diesel). Gay fantasies one and all, and Secondhand Lions is no different: it's the equivalent of the Boy Scouts of America decrying homosexuality as they pack off groups of young boys to spend quality time in the forest with men who want to spend a lot of time alone with young boys. Not that there's anything wrong with that. As a bit of fluff, the film is incredibly subversive and fitfully fun, but endlessly disquieting. A scene played for comedy wherein Hub and Garth fire off their shotguns at a parade of traveling salesmen is not only sort of horrifying, but also nonsensical in light of the fact that the boys are filthy rich and apparently not completely opposed to capitalism and material wealth. All they want, it seems, is a room of their own. Fly that freak flag high, boys.
New Line releases Secondhand Lions in a packed Platinum Series edition that seats 1.85:1 anamorphic and fullscreen video presentations next to each other on the same side of a DVD-18. New Line is the technical gold standard--with its vibrant colours, brilliant separation, and minimal edge-enhancement, the Secondhand Lions transfer does nothing to jeopardize that reputation. That said, there are compression artifacts now and again--particularly in the panoramic establishing shots--that scream "too much information" crammed onto too little surface area. It's a shame there exists any kind of demand for full-frame, as I can't help but think that Secondhand Lions' widescreen version suffers for it. A DD 5.1 EX-encoded mix is crisp and loud, getting most of its workout during the film's Arabian flashbacks, though I did appreciate the reverb from a few shotgun blasts and the background of rustling corn during a lion-wrestle. (Doesn't even sound like I'm describing one movie, does it?)
The disc contains a film-length yakker from hyphenate McCanlies that begins "I'll be gushing over (Osment) over the next 107 minutes of the film" and repeatedly promises backstory "as soon as we ever find a slow spot." At least he warns us. Truth is that the commentary is pretty engaging, featuring the expected hagiographies of Duvall and Caine and a couple of mildly interesting anecdotes about how the veterans took Osment under their wing as a fellow traveler--art imitating life imitating art and all that happy claptrap. The flipside is where you'll find a wealth of nifty supplements, beginning with an exhaustive deleted scenes section (ten in all, totalling more than 42 minutes) that includes an alternate ending even more insipid than the final cut's ("All the stories were true, pappy!") and a couple of new fantasy sequences that make mom a bigger whore and compare the two old men to cobwebbed skeletons. The picture therefore could have been weirder despite evidence to the contrary. The elisions are offered with optional McCanlies commentary.
"Secondhand Lions: One Screenplay's Wild Ride in Hollywood" (26 mins.) is a fantastic chronicle of the film's journey from script to screen that goes so far as to recap a hostile email exchange in which the touchy McCanlies viciously lays into the very studio execs who would eventually finance his picture. I was especially tickled by the brainstorm that this could be a sequel to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. A second 26-minute doc, "On the Set with Secondhand Lions", is interested more in the traditional behind-the-scenes stuff, but it resists for the most part lengthy excerpts from the picture. The shorter (12 mins.) "Haley Joel Osment: An Actor Comes of Age" has the pint-sized Penn waxing rhapsodic on his long career in show business. More obeisances laid at the altar of Duvall/Caine question the need for obituaries when those sad days finally come. A Visual Effects comparison demonstrates with two scenes how green- and bluescreen works and has always worked since the invention of colour stock. Seven TV spots, a theatrical trailer, an Easter Egg (located by highlighting the dog on the deleted/alternate scenes menu) showing how hard it is to convince a rooster to stand on a pig, a reel with Elf and Laws of Attraction trailers, and a temperamental DVD-ROM interface round out the presentation. Originally published: March 26, 2004.
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