by Mel Valentin
Everyone loves a winner, especially if that winnerís a horse, even more so if the horse, Secretariat, happened to win the Triple Crown (of Thoroughbred Racing). Add an Oscar-nominated-writer-turned-director, Randall Wallace ("Braveheart"), an Oscar-nominated actress, Diane Lane, as Secretariatís housewife-turned-racehorse-owner, blatant, overt sexism against said housewife-turned-racehorse-owner, an Oscar-nominated, venerable,-middle-aged thespian, John Malkovich, as a colorful French-Canadian horse trainer with a history of also-rans and never-wins, a Magical Negro with a horse for a best friend, and the end result looks and sounds like "Secretariat," a suspense-free, clichť-ridden, over sentimental, manipulative film.Secretariat centers on Penny Chenery (Diane Lane, obviously hoping for the Sandra Bullock/Blind Side effect at Oscar time), a housewife who, on the death of her mother and the incapacitation of her father (Scott Glenn) due, presumably, to Alzheimerís, takes over her familyís struggling horse farm in Kentucky. Not surprisingly for a woman in late 1960s, even one born to relative wealth and privilege like Chenery, she faces overt sexism from men, including her husband, Jack Tweedy (Dylan Walsh), who strongly prefers she sell the horse farm and return to being a full-time housewife for him and their children, Kate (Amanda Michalka), Sarah (Carissa Capobianco), and Chris (Sean Michael Cunningham), her brother, Hollis (Dylan Baker), and her fatherís business partner and ďthe richest man in America,Ē Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell).
"A race not worth running."
But Chenery has a plan to turn the horse farmís fortunes around. With new foals about to be born, the result of a Chenery-Phipps business transaction, Chenery gets the foal she wants, a male she calls Big Red (later Secretariat). To tap Big Redís potential, Chenery pursues and eventually hires Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), a colorful, colorfully dressed, French-Canadian trainer with a history of also-rans and almost-wins. Chenery easily coaxes Laurin out of an early retirement and together with Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth), a jockey, Big Red/ Secretariat begins an impressive run, winning every race as a two-year old.
Secretariat turns on Big Redís success as a three-year-old, specifically the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Horse Racing (limited to three-year-olds). Not surprisingly, thereís zero suspense in whether Secretariat will win the Triple Crown, so Wallace ties Secretariatís winning to Cheneryís financial fortunes, specifically a massive estate tax. Chenery comes up with a plan to sell shares in Secretariat (or, more accurately, Secretariatís seed) to raise enough money to continue training for the Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes), the first in 25 years. With Phippís help, she does, leaving Wallace to take Secretariat and, by extension, the audience, through his paces, race-by-race, using tight close-ups and Gladiator-style open aperture work to bring us into each race.
Semi-exciting race footage, however, isnít enough to save Secretariat from Wallace and screenwriter Mike Richís (The Nativity Story) Radio, The Rookie, Finding Forrester) heavy-handed, on-the-nose dialogue, overbroad performances, and an over-emphatic score. Lane gives one of her weaker performances, underlining every line of faux-profound dialogue or over-animating her facial features to convey Cheneryís emotional response to the minor and major problems standing between her and Secretariat winning the Triple Crown. Maybe Lane, seeing Bullock take the Academy Award for Best Actress last year for The Blind Side, decided that bigger was better when it came to her performance. Wallace certainly did nothing to restrain her performance or anyone elseís for that matter.But "Secretariatís" failings donít stop there. While the early 1970s setting means Wallace can insert unobjectionable commentary about gender (as in ďgender discrimination/sexism is badĒ), he obviously didnít pause and think when it came to the depiction of Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis), Secretariatís semi-literate, African-American groom. As portrayed by Ellis, Sweat is practically a Stepin Fetchit character, incapable of anything except obsequious behavior. Wallace and Rich give Sweat a morning-before-the-race inspiration line. Itís delivered to no one in particular (heís alone on the racetrack), but inspirational itís not. Itís embarrassing and cringe inducing for all its racial insensitivity.
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originally posted: 10/09/10 00:00:00