Los Angeles Times

Movie review: 'Secondhand Lions'

Tribune staff reporter

1-1/2 stars (out of 4)

"Secondhand Lions," writer/director Tim McCanlies' terribly ineffective family drama, is the story of Walter (Haley Joel Osment), a timid 14-year-old boy in early 1960s Texas who's already been beaten down by the hardships of his young life. His mother, Mae (Kyra Sedgwick), has always been more concerned with getting a date than with her son's happiness. And without a father, Walter has been left to fend for himself in many regards. Mae gets word that her rich uncles Hub (Robert Duvall) and Garth (Michael Caine), missing for 40 years, are back in Texas.

She decides to drop off Walter at their run-down farmhouse, unannounced, for the summer.

And so it begins: Grumpy old men who have come home to die affect the life of a lost little boy, and a lost little boy in turn gives them a reason to live. With such a bang-up cast, this setup could at least elicit some tears, but in its 107 minutes, nary a one welled up in my eyes.

As Walter adjusts to farm life and his newfound relatives, he begins to probe his uncles about where they've been for the past four decades. Turns out Hub and Garth were on great adventures in North Africa, fighting treacherous sheiks and falling in love with a beautiful princess - and it doesn't take much for either of them to spill their "secret past." The ease with which Hub and Garth open up to Walter removes all dramatic tension. They're gruff and private for all of five minutes, and even then the twinkle in Garth's eye tells us he'll be an easy nut to crack.

As Walter gets closer and closer to his uncles, Osment gets farther and farther away from his character. Osment's natural precociousness leaves us feeling like he's an adult actor, doing his very best to play the role of a much younger and more immature character.

The thing is, Osment is 15. And though his 15-going-on-30 personality might impress the Hollywood folk and amuse his aunts and uncles, it doesn't work here. This role calls for genuine naivete. Walter is a boy finally coming into his own, seeing things in the world for the first time. But Osment's attempt at "seeing the light" is pretty much just a riff on his "A.I." role. I shudder to think how a performance like this could have ruined Rob Reiner's 1986 film "Stand by Me."

"Lions" splits time between the dusty browns of 1960s central Texas and the vivid Technicolor reds and oranges of a turn-of-the-century North African dream world. Both fall flat. Before I read the production notes and learned that the movie was actually filmed in and around Austin, Texas, I would have bet it was made somewhere south of Orange County. And the attempt at an exotic and swashbuckling North Africa? No surprise there: soundstage almost all the way. Of course, the shoot's locale doesn't have to dictate its tone, but in this instance, the unimaginative look reeks of cardboard backdrops and Halloween costumes.

Equally unimaginative are the roles of Hub and Garth. McCanlies apparently based much of this movie on his childhood, modeling the uncles after his eccentric grandfather. But how eccentric are two men whose daily pleasure is shooting at pushy door-to-door salesmen? Sounds pretty standard to me - for central Texas, that is.

Once Walter convinces the uncles to spend some of their overflowing dough, they quit shooting and start buying - everything from corn for their garden to an old, rather gentle lion. (Some might call it a used up, or secondhand, lion.) This proves the age-old rule: You can put two old men in overalls and call them wacky, but once they start spending money, they're no more eccentric than the rest of us.

"Secondhand Lions"
Directed and written by Tim McCanlies; produced by David Kirschner, Scott Ross, Corey Sienega; photographed by Jack N. Green; edited by David Moritz; production designed by David J. Bomba; music by Patrick Doyle. A New Line Cinema release; opens Friday, Sept. 19. Running time: 1:47. MPAA rating: PG (thematic material, language and action violence).
Walter - Haley Joel Osment
Mae - Kyra Sedgwick
Hub McCaan - Robert Duvall
Garth McCaan - Michael Caine

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