I have noticed the past several months that every screening that I have walked into with a preconceived low expectation has surprised me for the better. Takers, The Switch and Easy A were all films I was expecting to pan, and two hours later I end up whistling a happy tune. Add Secretariat to that list.
Unless it’s a Pixar production, I always give Disney the short end of the stick, and I have no idea why. If there is one thing that they have proven beyond a doubt that they can do right it is make a sports movie and I still spent the past week saying, “Gah, I have to watch that horse racing movie, woe is me.” They hire two great actors in Diane Lane and John Malkovich, and instead of giving them credit I make jokes about it being the most miscast film since Harvey Keitel in Monkey Trouble. To it’s credit, Secretariat deserves to be mentioned in the same solemn tones that people speak of Remember the Titans and The Rookie. It’s that good.
John Malkovich plays Lucian Laurin, a semi-retired trainer that Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) hires in a last ditch effort to save the farm she inherits from her father (Scott Glenn in an understated performance). He only signs on when he sees the same potential in Secretariat that she does. Malkovich is stellar in this film, and while there is no doubt that he will be overlooked come awards time considering this is a PG movie about a horse, he deserves praise for carrying this film at times. In fact, he disappears for 20 minutes at one point and the film becomes insufferable.
Of course, that may have more to do with the fact that those 20 minutes are spent with scenes with Lane’s family. Yes, I understand that you have to have scenes showing the effects that her dual life is having on her family left in Denver, but these are always the worst scenes in these movies. It doesn’t help that the story happens in the early 70s, so her oldest daughter’s entire plot line is built around protesting the Vietnam War. Also, can we please put a stop to scenes involving kids walking up to adults and saying, “I’m proud of you”? You’re a kid, shut up. Also, this is Disney, so there has to be a group song-and-dance scene, this time involving washing a horse down.
That being said, Disney has a wonderful film on there hands. Aside from a few schmaltzy scenes, this is a movie that anyone would enjoy and I have no problem recommending.