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June 17, 2024

Secondhand Lions: Old Fashioned Fun at the Bijou

By Bernie Pilarski

By Bernie and Sand Pilarski

Bernie:"Let's go to San Francisco," I said to Sand. "We could go hang around with Bill (the bartender at Castagnola's on the Wharf), or watch sea lions at Pier 39."

"Or we could go to the movies," Sand said.

"Or we could go to The Cliff House for an early dinner and watch the fog come in the Golden Gate?" I suggested.

"Or we could go to the movies," Sand said.

"Or we could go out Golden Gate Park. They just reopened the conservatory. They've finally completed the repairs to the damage caused by the storms in'98."

"Or we could go to the movies," Sand said.

"Or," I said, thinking that I had detected a subtle nuance to Sand's words. "We could go to the movies. The Rock's new film is playing."

"Or we could go see Secondhand Lions," Sand said.

"There's also Johnny Depp in Once Upon a Time in Mexico," I said.

"Or we could go see Secondhand Lions," Sand said.

"And there's Under the Tuscan Sun. I heard that's really delightful."

"Or we could go see Secondhand Lions," Sand said.

"What was that movie with the kid from A.I., you know, something Hazmat?" I asked.

"Secondhand Lions?" Sand offered.

"Yeah, that one. You wouldn't be interested in seeing that one, would you?"

She was. Women sure can be complicated.

Secondhand Lions, on the other hand, is not complicated. It is a delightful, simple little tale about people not always being what they seem. A young boy (Haley Joel Osment) is sent to live with his two old, very eccentric uncles (Michael Caine and Robert Duvall). The uncles have a mysterious past and a large stash of money. During his stay, the young boy learns a little bit about his uncles' past, a little bit about life, and a lot about love.

That's it. No plot twists, no surprise endings, no deep psychological insights.

The most entertaining parts of the film are the scenes that illustrate the telling of the tale of the uncles' youthful adventures in North Africa as impressed members of the French Foreign Legion. There they find adventure, fortune, love, and tragedy. They ultimately return home to reclusive life on an isolated and dilapidated farm in rural Texas.

I liked this movie. It had a delightful premise and a strong cast in the lead roles. It was not perfect, by any means. I liked the story, but it was not well written. The acting was uneven, with the emotional bits seeming a bit forced, and the uncles are a bit two dimensional. The shortcomings in the acting were not the actors' faults, I judge, but once again the weak writing that rushes through character development opting to rely on cliché for color. As I so wish that they had spent more time on the uncles' adventure in the Foreign Legion.

But even with its shortcomings, I repeat, I liked this movie. Do you want to spend the money at the movies or wait until it hits Blockbuster? Close call. No Oscars here, but pretty darn good entertainment.

Sand: When I first saw the preview for this movie, I was interested by a scene in which the two uncles run off a traveling salesman who has driven into their yard. They do so by firing shotguns over the head of the salesman. Immediately envious, I wanted to see the whole movie to find out if they had any other charming strategies for getting rid of unwanted door-bell ringers ... maybe even something for use on telemarketers.

Uncles Garth and Hub live life on their own terms, able to afford to do so by virtue of a legendary stash of millions of dollars. They eat lots of meat because they like it; they live in a rundown, messy house because they don't feel like cleaning; they carry shotguns because they are handy for entertainment and for fishing. And they tell a tale of such splendor and exotic adventure about their lives that a kid and an audience can scarcely believe them.

Michael Caine has always annoyed me, ever since I was a child. He has annoyed me more by being a fine actor. I never liked Robert Duvall either. But both of them did a good job in this movie, playing the roles of aging adventurer uncles who are not really comfortable with the "aging" part, not really comfortable with the "uncles" part. If they seem a bit stiff at times, it could be because their characters are stiff with unwelcome retirement and unwelcome relatives. Haley Joel Osment has been praised for his role in The Sixth Sense and roasted for his part in AI: Artificial Intelligence, the former bringing him accolades for being serious and cute and the latter damning him for being serious and cute. In this movie, he's serious and cute and the abandoned nephew Walter is a really good straight man for the sly-eyed Caine and the caged badass Duvall. The three of them played themselves in this movie and I think it worked out just fine that way.

A lot of us would like to have uncles like that with whom we could have grown up, uncles (or aunts) who didn't care about what society might think of them, didn't buy into the rat race, didn't let the world grind them up and spit them out into ill-fitting molds that looked like all the other ground-up and spat-out unhappy people in the neighborhood. Uncles and aunts who stuck by each other through thick and thin, who weren't afraid to hold onto love with all their being.

Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle despised the movie. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times liked it. Go figure.

Myself, I'd side with Ebert. There was no behavior I had to overlook (I like shotguns) nor was I expected to observe (or overlook) the private parts of people whose private parts I didn't want to see in the first place. True love, some slapstick comedy, and folks who learn what goodness can be -- oh, yes, I enjoyed this film immensely. Uncomplicated and predictable because the main characters were nice people, by and large, and behaved as we would like nice people to behave, Secondhand Lions was beautiful to look at and had me relaxing and smiling and eager for the next scene, and sorry the movie was so short.

Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2003-10-06
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