Secondhand Lions

Starring:
  • The Apostle
  • Austin Powers' Dad
  • Puberty

 

 
Directed via Disney Heavy-Handedness

"Whatever happened to that gigantic black man who picked you up by your head at the Oscars?"

The Art and Humor of the Shotgun

Phil Gramm once said, "I own more shotguns than I need, but less shotguns than I want." I've never been quite sure how that narrows down for Phil Gramm, but by my count made during Secondhand Lions, Robert Duvall and Michael Caine probably need four shotguns apiece—one for the porch, one for the kitchen, one for the car, and one down by the pond. Secondhand Lions' finest moments feature Robert Duvall and Michael Caine employing shotguns with the nonchalance you might have with a butter knife. Duvall and Caine play Hub and Garth, brothers who—despite their great wealth wrought by adventures with royalty in Africa and the Middle East—have retired to simple cabin life somewhere in the South in the 1950's. We are introduced to them while they shoot carp in the pond out back behind the shed. Now, shooting carp is more difficult than it sounds; Duvall's frustration boils over, even when he hikes his jeans up and wades out there to get those suckers. Caine takes a more analytical approach to shooting carp, trying to figure out how to lure the carp toward the bank to make them easier targets. In fact, their entire characters are contained in this single adventure: Duvall is the roughneck adventurer who has fought dozens of men at a time, and Caine is the more contemplative, subdued brother whose life is dedicated to being his brother's conscious.

This is a promising start: Any movie which uses carp fishing as a metaphor immediately earns my good graces. Shooting carp, for the uninitiated, is indeed more difficult than taking potshots at the traveling salesmen who pull up to the brothers' cabin. Duvall and Caine grab their shotguns instinctively, like flyswatters, when their annoyance approaches. The old coots just grab their guns, located conveniently next to their rocking chairs, and take aim with no great contemplation—not like gunslingers. This nonchalance is played for laughs because shotguns are always, always funnier than handguns. Shotguns are associated with hillbilly stereotypes, employed just to throw a scare into you at shotgun weddings, or to run off trespassers—whereas handguns are compact, precision weapons whose mission is to kill cleanly and efficiently. We don't often see people in the movies get shot with shotguns, and even when we do, the wound isn't lethal—usually ending up in the rump or the foot. On the other hand, handguns in western, gangster, and cop movies are frightening. Handguns are usually concealed, brandished specifically for the kill; their discharge is often somewhat muted, making their impact seem sneaky and evil. To contrast, there's nothing sneaky about carrying around a shotgun, nor is there any subtlety in its deafening blast: The shotgun's humor lies in its extrapolated bluntness. Brian Dennehy, for example, would have invested too much anger and too much aim in these shotgun scenes, where these superior actors just playfully flip their shotguns around and let the image's caricature create the scene. Duvall and Caine understand the meta-dynamics of the shotgun, which elevates their performances in what is otherwise a so-so movie.

Those are the high points of Secondhand Lions, a Disney film in story, look, and feel. Disney stories are always some sort of outlandish fairytale (here, in the brothers' younger days, they go from a drunken night in Paris to an extended stint in the French Foreign Legion) filmed in bright light on conservative sets—yet the tone of the Disney film never quite matches its style. Disney films want to be funny and absurd (like Caine and Duvall's fun with shotguns), but they reach for sentiment derived from contrived drama. The last thirty minutes or so of Secondhand Lions descends into maudlin, which undermines the impact of the fable itself. The fact that Disney novel adaptations usually don't handle narrative very well is no help—resulting in incomplete story and character arcs, leaving the audience with the feeling that something's missing, and leaving the actors powerless to do anything about it.

The strength of Disney movies is usually when actors embrace single scenes, bringing about their individual humor or drama. Of course Duvall and Caine ham it up, so the thankless emoting falls to Haley Joel Osment as Walter, whose mom leaves him with his rich uncles to angle in on their fortune. At first, Osment's newly deepened voice is quite shocking—they grow up too fast, these child stars. In this film, Osment mostly just pouts or looks on curiously at his uncles' antics, but it's still apparent that his fate will be much different than Dickie Roberts'. The kid throws himself into every scene, whether it's telling his mom he hates her, to the disgust at his accommodations, to the curiosity he shows toward his uncles' repressed emotions. Still, the role is so archetypal that even the kid genius can't elevate the movie above mediocrity.

There's really not much else to this movie that a Disney-raised population doesn't already know. It seems a bit of a waste that such good actors are not be given more material, especially with the promise of the first hour (as the boy's mother approaches the carp pond, and Duvall asks Caine, "Did you get a hooker?"). The story makes a sort of artistic statement about lions and growing into a man, but the writing is so thin that it overcompensates with a score that drowns out the actors. If you've got kids, it's a good enough two hours, I suppose, but Secondhand Lions doesn't have the madcap hilarity of earlier Disney bumpkin movies like The Apple Dumpling gang. Tim McCanlies directs the movies as if the presence of three Oscar caliber actors requires the film to take a dramatic turn. All three of these actors can be very funny, and if McCanlies (Dancer, Texas, Pop. 81) had gone for an all-out romp rather than for tears, this film might have stumbled onto the poignancy it's looking for. I'm not saying that Robert Duvall and Michael Caine should have done Don Knotts and Tim Conway impressions, but this film tries so hard in its conclusion that it undermines the audience's good will. I became bored enough by the ending that I began to wonder what might happen if Osment had shown up at the carp-blasting as the robot-child from A.I.

The Pitch:
1 The Apple Dumping Gang
Plus
 
1 Phil Gramm
Equals
 
2 Secondhand Lions
See It For:

Duvall taking potshots at the director's trailer.