Volume II, Issue III Autumn 2003

Letting it all unfold

Review by Jim Trageser

Secondhand Lions
Written and directed by Tim McCanlies

New Line Cinema
Starring Michael Caine, Robert Duvall and Haley Joel Osment
Rated PG (violence, theme, profanity)
Official Web site


If modern movies don't generally inspire the kind of fan loyalty that old-school flicks do, maybe there's a reason. And maybe the reason is that there are so few movies like "Secondhand Lions."

We don't need to retreat to black-and-white film stock to recapture the magic of Hollywood; what we do need are stories of imagination and love – both of which populate Tim McCanlies' script in abundance.

In brief, a boy of early adolescence is dropped off by his flighty mother to live with her two bachelor uncles on their Texas farm in the early 1960s – to stay while she pursues whatever deviance she pursues, and to find out where their rumored stash of millions is hidden. The uncles (Michael Caine and Robert Duvall) don't particularly want the boy, but warm to him more than his mother seems to have.

As a director, McCanlies lets the story unfold organically – almost lazily. Each vignette, every scene is allowed to find its full flower, to completely tell its story in its own time.

Secondhand Lions
Haley Joel Osment, Michael Cain and Robert Duvall
Courtesy New Line Cinema

And in Caine and Duvall, McCanlies has two actors strong enough to appreciate and use such pacing. From a hitch Duvall gives his trousers to a slight creasing of Caine's eyes, it's clear that these two veterans know how to play to the camera in a way that furthers the telling of the story, that allows their characters to flesh out.

As to that camera – it is either old-technology, old-stock film or a nice effect that gives the majority of "Secondhand Lions" the kind of glow that movies used to have before the advent of modern cinema cameras made every movie hyper-realistic. The almost-hazy feeling of "Secondhand Lions" is what gives the film much of its charm – except for the final scene, McCanlies has opted for a stylized romanticism in the actual filming of the movie, and it's a wonderful throwback to earlier, imperfect technology.

But even a customarily modern camera with its flat picture wouldn't have been wasted on Caine and Duval; the interplay between them is so rich and rewarding that it would be worth sitting through even if "Secondhand Lions" weren't such a gloriously understated story. If not the most powerful performances of their stories careers, these are among their most charming – and perhaps most memorable.

Yet as good as Caine and Duvall are, young Haley Joel Osment nearly steals the movie from them. Showing remarkable range as his character grows from a shy and withdrawn boy to a youth entering the threshold of manhood, Osment is a worthy partner for Caine and Duvall.

The charming story of redemption and love, the tremendous ensemble acting, and the old-school cinematography combine to create a film with a classic patina – one that stands up to the best of the old-school; a film you'll want to get on DVD to watch over and again through the years.

Jim Trageser is a writer and editor living in Escondido, Calif.

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