“Secretariat” – Optimists Over Naysayers By A Nose

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By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Sweet of soul and ennobling of the human spirit, director Randall Wallace’s uplifting “Secretariat” is “Seabiscuit” (2003) with money. While the owners of both famed equines were rather well-heeled, the Depression era background of the latter tale went a long way to pulling our heartstrings. Here, the accompanying human saga is strictly upper crust.

Indeed, Penny Chenery, the Colorado housewife who takes a hiatus from her tax expert spouse and Brady Bunch-like moppets to save the old Virginia horse farm after Mom dies, has her monetary moments. But never is there a time when a sale of the beauteous estate that spawns the title horse couldn’t keep even these Brahmins in clover for eons.

[smartads]

All the same, credit must be given whenever a true story engenders as engaging an anxiety in its viewers. And the altruistic messages espoused, perfect for discussion between Dad and offspring in an après film, hot dogs and fries bonding, far outweigh any satisfaction the critic may gain by pointing out the movie’s lack of avant-garde artistry.

Look around. Red state or blue state, this is definitely a time for Disney… specifically, this kind of old Disney. Even if we can’t summon complete sympathy for the woes of the primarily privileged class depicted herein, there is a social wisdom to be gained from the values promoted. A stellar cast further ameliorates the dearth of cutting edge sensibilities.

Pretty as the hibernating firebrand champing at the bit to self-actualize and have a run at the roses, Diane Lane’s Penny Chenery strikes a blow for all the ladies who missed the news about Women’s Lib. Starring as Lucien Laurin, her famously eccentric trainer, John Malkovich delivers comedy relief via a loose rein doubtlessly adopted to spur hamming.

Less invigorating but important for the stereotypes they represent, Margo Martindale is effusively sweet as Miss Ham, the loyal family retainer; Dylan Walsh is the buttoned-down husband who believes women should stay home and chair the local charities; and Dylan Baker is the economics prof brother afraid the family fortune will be squandered.

Perhaps played down because it’d kill the underdog angle is the opulent and genteel beauty of the 2,798 acre Meadow Farm where Penny’s dad, portrayed in declining health by Scott Glenn, raised several big winners. Too bad. Speaking personally, I vicariously benefit from such surroundings with the joy of an inner city kid who’s been sent to camp.

However, now that all conciliations have been politely noted, be aware this is dark horse tale #101, its time-honored stencil whisked from the shelf and dusted off for one more romp around the track. Only the names of the pony and its owner are routinely changed to protect the innocent cliché. Mike Rich’s screenplay does little to dispel that notion.

Similarly, the director shuns any risky embellishments. Like good honest meatloaf compared to drizzled this or reduction of that, it is what is. And though it isn’t the best variation on a hackneyed theme, that’s the card he plays. But with no pretense also come no surprises. You plunk your money down and get what you paid for…for the most part.

While the action scenes dutifully impart the requisite tension and excitement as Big Red challenges the field across America’s storied racetracks, they are decidedly economical. Good editing helps belie a less than adventurous blend of filmed and CGI frames. Only the costumes, a smart evocation of early ‘70’s garb, add a unique flair to the doings.

But Mr. Malkovich’s fancy duds, a rotating, screaming amalgam of Boca Raton mogul and vaudeville clown, are so their own era that they practically serve as the subplot the movie lacks. Kids attending with grandparents are likely to be informed that once upon a time there was an actress, Loretta Young, who changed outfits with equal enthusiasm.

If there is any notable zeal here it comes from the nag that plays the four-legged lead. Thanks to patience and skill, the cinematographer whimsically supports the popular joke around the stable that Secretariat was a shameless showoff who loved mugging for the press. My wife, Joanne, bemoaned that there is no Oscar for best animal in a leading role.

To outline the plot would be superfluous. Yet in case you just got back from K-PAX, this is the “little” horse that could…again. Harnessed to a whole bunch of nice people and high ideals, its modicum of semi-villains will nary spook the little ones. Still, your best bet is to scratch “Secretariat” until you can claim him cheap at the video rental store.

“Secretariat,” rated PG, is a Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures release directed by Randall Wallace and stars Diane Lane, John Malkovich and Margo Martindale. Running time: 116 minutes


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