They say what makes or breaks an effective tale is the way a storyteller portrays it. With the right storyteller, an explanation stating how one makes a peanut and jelly sandwich can be entertaining.
The story of the racehorse Secretariat is an inspiring and extraordinary string of events. However, in this case of the film of the same name, director Randall Wallace turns this underdog tale into a very boring experience.
Penny Chenery, played by Diane Lane, is making breakfast for her family when she gets a saddening phone call. Learning that her father has fallen ill, Penny realizes that his stables are still in need of care and volunteers for the task. Over the course of the time on her father’s ranch, she gets to know the horses and grows attached to one in particular named Big Red. Needing an extra hand with “Big Red” and the rest of the horses, Lucien Laurin, played by John Malkovich, hired to help out.
As Big Red – eventually named Secretariat – begins to race, his legend grows through winnings and word of mouth.
The film is filled with fine performances with Lane’s in particular standing out. The role of the leading lady not ready to give up is a character that, when written poorly, is riddled with underdog story tropes and cliche lines. Here, Lane takes the character of Penny Chenery and is able to portray the transformation from quiet housewife to strong business woman flawlessly. We feel her pain when she’s trying to balance her home life with work. A scene where she is forced to listen to her daughter’s school performance over a phone due to her plane ride home being cancelled is a prime example of her exceptional acting. That isn’t to say her character isn’t written in a cliched way; she definitely is. Lane though is able to rise above the written work and make her performance very enjoyable.
Malkovich does a very good job with providing a dry sense of humor with outrageous deliveries. There are also competent performances in the supporting cast as well from Dylan Baker and James Cromwell.
Unfortunately, there are a few performances that didn’t live up to where the bar was set. Kevin Connolly appears as reporter Bill Nack but it’s hard to separate him from the character he plays on HBO‘s Entourage due to Connolly not changing up his speech patterns or mannerisms. Otto Thorwarth, who plays Secretariat’s jockey, is a retired jockey in real life; his acting chops show that. Thorwarth’s performance falls in the classic category of “Give an Athlete Lines of Dialogue and This is What You Get” (see Space Jam). Each line is delivered with such unenthusiasm, it’s as if he’s upset at Wallace for giving him a role in the first place.
Other problems, however, lie in the writing and in the direction. Screenwriter Mike Rich takes these incredible, real life scenarios and writes them as hackneyed circumstances everyone has seen at least once or twice before in previous films about a dark horse (no pun intended). Rich, however, is able to inject very humorous exchanges in his script. The conversations Laurin has with Chenery about his colorful clothing are very funny; as are the clothes that skilled costume designer Michael T. Boyd has prepared for Malkovich.
Rich has written a script that is overlong; filled with expendable montage sequences. Part of the blame though falls on Wallace’s direction, too. The scenes that aren’t played for laughs are either very dull and drawn out or irrelevant filler which creates pacing problems. Although the film clocks in at close to two hours, it feels like days pass while we, the eager audience, wait for the next race to commence. That said though, Wallace directs the climactic race with such a lifeless style that once the scene ends, the audience is caught off guard while they shrug out of disappointment.
What Secretariat needed was more of an energetic spirit. Being that the film was distributed by Disney with a PG rating, that missing affection is needed even more. The film may not necessarily be catered to young children but with a PG rating, a studio has to keep in mind that families may bring their young ones to see Secretariat. Watching the movie, I found myself less and less interested as the film progressed. I can’t even imagine how antsy kids will be during the countless scenes of humdrum exposition.
Hopefully, in the future, we can expect a more creative mind to take another stab at this tale. Someone who is much more passionate about educating audiences about the story of Secretariat.