It’s very rare to see a movie which can be boiled down into one word. But in the case of “Secretariat,” the new Disney inspiration-porn, One word keeps popping into my head: awkward. Awkward pacing, awkward acting, awkward staging- the list goes on.
Which is a real shame, because it is so damn pretty.
“Secretariat” then is the awkward yet gorgeous tale of Penny Chanery, owner of the famed racehorse. She wins the colt in a coin toss which had previously been brokered by her father and Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell), then the richest man in the world. She gets a semi-retired trainer, with the fabulous name of Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), who apparently had a penchant for fancy hats and cursing in French. Two years later she pits the horse in the grueling road to the Triple Crown, tearing herself from her clean and pretty nuclear family in an effort to bring glory of her father’s horse farm (and also, you know, make a ridiculous amount of money).
Written by: Mike Rich
Starring: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, James Cromwell
Diane Lane is one of my favorite actresses, so it pains me to see her used so badly in this. This is the woman who made the main character of “Must Love Dogs” a likable human being. But even Lane can’t save the stilted dialogue by Mike Rich and terrible pacing by director Randall Wallace. Her normal grace and almost off-hand delivery seems strangely tortured here, as if she’s working for every line. She’s still likable, though; a scene where she has to listen to her daughter’s school play over the phone while she’s away at a race is a moment of pure compassion and humanity.
Malkovich is a high point for the film, as he brings his own special kind of crazy that not even the Mouse can control. I liked that he made Laurin a strange person but didn’t turn him into a caricature. And he has an easy semi-flirtatious chemistry with Lane, which made me seriously wish some enterprising young producer would put them in a romantic comedy together.
And then, of course, there’s the customary wise, subservient black man Eddie Sweat (“True Blood’s” Nelsan Ellis). It’s almost not worth being offended by this kind of character, who’s usually played by Morgan Freeman/Danny Glover/Cuba Gooding, Jr. But it’s annoying- a constant reminder of the archaic nature of some of Disney’s programming.
Everything is glistening in “Secretariat”. The sun falls in picturesque patches across Diane Lane’s lovely face, and Big Red (Secretariat’s real name) dances coltishly in the fields beyond her father’ farm. Penny’s husband barbecues on their back patio in Denver, while her darling daughters prance around in peasant shirts. It’s a creepy, Thomas Kinkade-like portrait of America in the early 70s, eerie but weirdly seductive. It eschews most of the social upheaval of the time period (the only reference is through one of Penny’s daughters, who likes to attend Peace rallies in her spare time), and decides that the 70s was less about the politics and more about fabulous sweater sets.
The script tends to meander through most of the movie, focusing way too much on the minutiae of horse breeding and Jockey Club rules. It wanders from moment to moment within Secretariat’s and Penny’s lives without a guiding thread. But my goodness, how it picks up when the races start. Horse racing is already exciting so it doesn’t take much art on director Randall Wallace’s part to create show-stopping, heart-pounding, vibrant scenes. In one of the best scenes in the movie, Penny’s family gather around the television to watch the Preakness Stakes, and we view the second race in the Triple Crown through their black and white screen. The scene both illustrates how Secretariat became a national story and gloats that even distanced by two screens, the race is still captivating.
Is it a great film? I think not, and possibly one that will fade in the shadows of bigger releases over the next few months. I don’t doubt that there’s a lot of heart in this movie, and a lot of good old-fashioned American values. But in their efforts to tell an inspiring story, Rich and Wallace forgot to tell it well. And that’s, well, just awkward for everyone.