REVIEW: Secretariat

13 10 2010

If you had a checklist of everything that a sports movie should have, “Secretariat” would have a check in every box.  One might think that with every t crossed and every i dotted, this would be the perfect entry into the genre.  However, for every reason that it should be great, it winds up being completely average.

For two hours, the movie manages to have the same vitality as the dirt that the horses kick up while running – which is to say that it’s lifeless and boring.  Perhaps the biggest problem “Secretariat” faces is that the same dirt has been trod so many times before.  Face it, the race has been run.

It’s not just in horse movies, either.  Sure, there’s the very similar “Seabiscuit,” but it bears a resemblance to any movie that goes by the playbook.  The same formula meant to bring about buoyant inspiration now manages to incite a completely averse reaction.  There’s only so many of these movies we can have before they all just run together to create white noise, and “Secretariat” is just another also-ran destined to play late nights on the Lifetime and Hallmark channels.

Perhaps the filmmakers thought that the movie was original because it technically doesn’t fit the bill of the underdog story.  Secretariat is a horse bred to win.  His parents are both champions, and everyone who knows anything about horses could predict that he would be something special.  In a somewhat clever twist, the underdog is not the horse but the film’s protagonist, Diane Lane’s Penny Chennery.  Facing financial difficulties around the inheritance of her ailing father’s estate, she banks on one horse to do the nearly impossible: win the Triple Crown.

Yet it’s hard to rally around Lane’s performance because it feels about as fresh as a can of creamed corn.  A strong, independent woman acting independently (and even against at certain times) her husband was unheard of in the 1970s, but Lane deems this unworthy of any sort of attention or importance.  Hidden behind her perfectly settled hair and dolled-up face, Chennery is always incredibly emotionally distant, and in those rare instances that she does show some outward feeling, it feels about as genuine as a slab of fool’s gold.

Sports movies always offer plenty of opportunities to turn a good metaphor, and “Secretariat” has enough to fill an entire motivational speech.  Much of them come courtesy of wasted narration from the mouth of Diane Lane, as if the filmmakers thought they would add something to her character.  They come in excess, in a quantity deserving of the term of endearment gluttony.  I have no problem with employing the simple yet complex art form of metaphors to cater to Middle America, but there’s only a finite amount that can be packed into two hours.  (And for all the Biblical references, they missed the most obvious one in Hebrews 12.)

To bring a movie to life where the ending is already spelled out, there really has to be some element so highly elevated that it can make the sacrifice of time worthwhile.  Despite two Oscar nominated stars, Diane Lane and John Malkovich, and a plot that could really be a winner, watching “Secretariat” is like watching the Kentucky Derby in an empty Churchill Downs.  C

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