There's a perennially popular genre in films and novels in which a child, abandoned, neglected or otherwise forgotten, finds comfort and strength in the welcoming world of an older relative, and blossoms in the glow of that love. "Secondhand Lions" is the latest film to tap that almost foolproof vein, but it is so banal, so trite, and so flatly written and directed that it ends up a pathetic disaster. Whatever possessed two of the finest actors working today - Michael Caine and Robert Duvall - to sign on to it? What were they thinking?
The film is the story of young Walter (Haley Joel Osment), abandoned by his mother (Kyra Sedgwick) to the care of his two elderly and eccentric great-uncles (Caine and Duvall, struggling to make their supposed Texas accents match each other) while she runs off to Las Vegas. She also has heard the family rumor that the two old men have stashed away a fortune in ill-gotten gains, and wants Walter to locate it and somehow get it for her.
I hope I'm not giving anything away by telling you that Walter and his uncles find love and pride and amusement in each others' company, and that they manage to feed their eccentricities and stave off their ravenous relatives before the movie ends. The film was written and directed by Tim McCanlies, who has larded it with every possible trope of the genre. The old men buy an elderly circus lion to keep around the place (secondhand lion, get it?). They buy a biplane and fly it under a freeway overpass. They tell Walter stories of their youth in the French Foreign Legion, of their adventures in Africa, and their theft of a huge amount of gold from a sheik. Oh, and did I mention the lost love?
All of this can be done - has been done elsewhere - with wit and flair and a stylish bravura, so that we believe in the fable even as we watch it. Audiences are always primed to suspend disbelief, and stories like this are cotton candy at the circus. But McCanlies is so heavy, so dull, so in love with every cliché that even the otherwise exciting moments drag and pall. His dialogue is deadly, a kind of low-rent "Open Range," if that's not an oxymoron. His direction of every shot is head-on to the action, and his editing is always a beat too late. He seems not to have an inventive bone in his body. So the unanswered question is, who blackmailed Caine and Duvall to get them into the film? We may never know.