'Secretariat' beats a dead horse

Article Published: Oct. 14, 2010 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
'Secretariat' beats a dead horse

Diane Lane stars in 'Secretariat.'

Horse walks into a bar.

Bartender asks, "Why the long face?"

Horse says, "Just watched Secretariat."

What could have been an engrossing tale about the world's greatest racehorse is, instead, one of the most uninspired inspirational films of the year.

Suffering from a particularly watered-down Disney treatment, Secretariat combines worn-out "never give up, nothing's impossible" sentiment with a trite and poorly executed "independent woman battling sexism of an era" message, all beaten over viewers' heads like a dull, 116-minute-long riding crop.

It's not a fun ride. It's a long, tedious ride, littered with laughable dialogue and awkward attempts at heartstring tugging. And, surprisingly, Secretariat isn't really even about the legendary horse who shattered records in the 1973 Triple Crown.

It's about his owner, Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane, Nights in Rodanthe), a Denver housewife who inherits the family horse farm after her mother dies, leaving only Penny's senile father (Scott Glenn, Personal Best) and his loyal secretary, Miss Ham (Margo Martindale, Showtime's Dexter), to care for its upkeep.

Penny leaps at the opportunity to restore the farm to its heyday, much to husband Jack's (Dylan Walsh, TV's Nip/Tuck) chagrin. It means living away from home for a time, neglecting her domestic duties, as she negotiates saving the family farm by raising a champion colt - a long shot, but, as we're repeatedly told, anything's possible to Penny.

But fortunately, the colt, bred from the finest stock, has the heart of a champion. With help from eccentric trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich, Burn After Reading) and groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis, HBO's True Blood), the colt, named Big Red, gets a shot at the races.

Under the moniker of Secretariat, Red takes the racing world by storm, overcoming all odds and becoming a serious contender to win the Triple Crown, a feat that hadn't been accomplished since 1948.

But keep in mind, this film isn't about Secretariat, but rather Penny, an otherwise bland character who screenwriter Mike Rich (Radio) strives to make interesting by cranking up the pathos dial.

With unnatural dialogue that drips with contrived sentimentality, this portrayal seems as meticulously made-up as the character's beehive hairdo. Rich and director Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers) waste so much time fashioning Penny as a likeable underdog that they lose sight of pacing, story and setting.

In fact, Wallace's depiction of the late '60s, early '70s is so sterile that, if it weren't for the costumes and haircuts, that decade would be indistinguishable from another.

Rather than treat these turbulent times with the appropriate reverence, the setting is merely suggested as hastily drawn backdrop, much like Penny's daughter's unintentionally hilarious anti-war demonstration (picture Simon & Garfunkel's "Silent Night" performed by Charles Schulz's "Peanuts").
The racing scenes bring a small degree of excitement to the film, though anyone who's heard of Secretariat knows the outcome. At times effectively shot (jockey's point of view, which appears more harrowing than one might think) and at others just bizarre (close-up of horses' eyes with heavy breathing), they come across as uneven, and cheering sports reporters don't help.

One could say the cast makes do with what's given, but very little was given, except for repetitive inspirational monologues. Lane's hammed-up performance as the excruciatingly optimistic Penny grows annoying midway through the first act, while the usually enjoyable Malkovich is wasted talent, confined to a Disney-league supporting role, making jokes about monkey butts and stumbling over golf clubs. In fact, he's outshined by his character's garish hats.

Ellis fares even worse, portraying Secretariat's talented groom as Disney's token African American mystic, while Walsh's performance as Penny's stifling husband is cut and dry at best.

It's simply over-polished, and Secretariat's exciting true story suffers from this shoddy, formulaic treatment. Instead of getting one's heart racing, Secretariat gallops to mediocrity.

Secretariat, rated PG for brief mild language, is playing at Regal Cinema 7 in Boone.

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