“Secretariat,” the uplifting new drama about the little horse who could hits the Triple Crown of Sports Movie Clichés. It features a plucky protagonist, formulaic dialogue and a “never give up” attitude. It also features Diane Lane and John Malkovich so it can’t be all bad… or can it?
Lane, in her first film since 2008’s “Killshot,” plays Penny Chenery, the daughter of a once powerful horse breeder. Following the death of her mother Penny and her iron will, take over the running of the family farm. Finances are in disarray, but despite everyone’s insistence that she sell the farm and cut the losses she believes in a horse she calls Big Red, but everyone else knows as Secretariat. Against all odds—I know that’s a cliché, but so is this movie—she, along with the horse and an eccentric French-Canadian trainer named Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) trot to the very pinnacle of success, becoming the first to win the Triple Crown in twenty-five years.
Secretariat, the horse, not the movie, is probably the best known stallion to ever step hoof on a racetrack. He was the horseflesh Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, an athlete so famous even non-sports fans knew his story. And that’s the problem with “Secretariat,” the movie. The story is so familiar that no amount of gutsy Diane Lane or oddball Malkovich can distract from the fact that there is very little conflict or drama in the movie. By the time Lane says, “I hear you have the heart of a champion” the end of the film is no longer a secret and the movie begins to feel like a balloon whose air is slowly seeping out.
At fault is the relentlessly sunny script that paints the characters in the broadest of strokes. Although they are all based on real people, none seem realistic. Penny is spirited, we can tell by the determined look on her face and we know Lucien is unconventional by the strange hats he wears. It all seems like they exist in a heightened reality, the kind of reality that only exists in movies. Mickey and Judy put on a show in the barn. Penny and Lucien rode a horse all the way to the top of the sports world. It seems like a movie conceit, except that it’s true, but the grit of real life horse racing is missing, replaced by Hollywood sparkle.
On the upside, the racing scenes are well shot—who knew the jockeys got so muddy during the race?—and despite the platitudes, clichés and sports truisms Lane and company manage to wring out the odd emotional moment, mostly when the horse is off-screen, however.
“Secretariat” is escapist fare with little emotional depth and a truly unfortunate John Malkovich dance scene that, like the horse it is based on, gives it’s all, but unlike the horse, never quite passes the finish line.