Michael Caine & Robert Duvall totally ignored that old acting adage 'Never appear with children or animals' when they starred in 'Secondhand Lions' back in 2003 alongside young Haley Joel ('I see dead people') Osment. Moreover, some kindly Hollywood agent (does such a creature exist?) should have taken the juvenile actor to one side and warned him of the dangers of working with a couple of 'experienced' actors who know every scene stealing trick in the book. It's not that young Joel turns in a bad performance, indeed he's very good, it's just that he doesn't run away with the picture like you'd expect. This honour is bestowed upon Robert Duvall as Hub, the elder brother of a pair of retired adventurers, whose life of splendid isolation is disrupted when the duty of looking after a young teenage lad is suddenly foist upon them. Hub has been the more active of the pair in his desire to see the world, taking danger in his stride and seeking the love of an Arabian Princess.
Michael Caine plays Garth, the sensible one, who relates the pair's swashbuckling adventures to the open mouthed young shaver - and we're never entirely sure if it's the truth he's telling or if he's swinging the lead. Like the boy, we very much would like to believe him, but it seems so out of context with their current everyday existence that we have our doubts.
Before young Walter arrives on the scene, the two old codgers are happy to spend their days sitting on the porch of their dilapidated farm, taking pot-shots with shotguns at salesmen who have the temerity to ignore the warning signs and try to sell them something. Sounds like a good pastime to me, but I'd reserve it for AV sales people who still tell customers that plasmas need regassing every three years.
But anyway, Walter hasn't just arrived on the farm by chance. No Sirree!
His mother ( Kyra Sedgewick ), a flighty good time gal, hopes that while Walter lives with his Uncles, he'll discover the whereabouts of their stashed fortune - as there is some suspicion that the two brothers robbed the odd Bank or two during their colourful careers.
This is also the held belief of some other relatives who descend upon Hub & Garth during Walter's stay - politely trying to wave aside the heavy hints that they should clear off and leave the old boys in peace.
The brothers are great believers in buying things secondhand, including a clay pigeon firing contraption from a white flag waving salesman who survives their shotgun toting reception. One of the funniest episodes is where they buy a selection of vegetable seeds then plough up their field and plant them - only to find that they all strangely resemble corn. The link with the title is provided literally with the sequence where they purchase a secondhand lion with the intention of hunting it on their property - just like they would have done in the good old days. Sadly, the lion turns out to be a bit of a geriatric (just like them) who is nursed to health by Walter and then takes up residence in their cornfield.
Obviously Hub & Garth are the true secondhand lions of the movie but it doesn't stop them from being likeable. The sequence in the 'drug store' where Hub single handedly takes on a gang of young 'punks' is a delight, especially his lecture on manhood that follows.
So what we have here is a movie about the coming of age for young Walter, who learns the meaning of being a man from his two Uncles, but mainly from Hub.
There is a touch of sentiment towards the end, but there's nothing wrong with that. If we become so hard hearted that nothing brings a tear to the eye, then we have become robots. This movie reminds us that we are, whether we like it or not, human.
As mentioned before, it's really Robert Duvall's performance that is the rock to which this movie really clings. His stoic solidity lends credibility to the tales told by his brother. Michael Caine as Garth, complete with his own brand of somehow believable American accent, makes a good foil to the more impetuous Hub and the two have an excellent on screen partnership. Haley Joel Osment as the young Walter easily avoids the Hollywood kid lack of appeal. This young man can act and puts up a good defence in the face of competition from two old stagers.
Written and directed by Tim McCanlies (who scripted 'The Iron Giant), the movie takes its time to tell this engaging story and it tells it well. The flashback sequences as Garth relates the brothers' adventures have the old fashioned melodramatic look that make us feel that perhaps a somewhat more rosy picture is being painted - but isn't that true to life? Besides, stories are always more interesting if they are larger than life.
As a whole, the film is a very satisfying watch with a beginning, middle and end. The cynics among us might sneer and say that it is a fantasy or a children's film. I would disagree as there is something for all of us to take away, young or old. There is a great sense of fun and the relationship between the boy and his two uncles is a pleasure to behold.
Taken in context 'Secondhand Lions' is very enjoyable viewing. It's a movie that can be watched by the whole family without fear of offence. It may not be of the blockbuster type, but wouldn't it be a dull world if we only ever watched one type of movie? There may well be a secondhand lion in all of us.
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