Save for an unexpected helicopter landing, there isn’t much flash to Secondhand Lions. But don’t take that to mean it is not inventive. Instead, it foregoes the sap and the lowbrow of a lesser movie in favor of engaging creativity and a message that, through some characters’ tough choices, actually resonates.
In a narrative filled with tales of treasure, none is more valuable than that of the acting from Robert Duvall and Michael Caine. Neither offers a surprise, but each settles into his role perfectly — Duvall per normal with the flashier speechifying and Caine with the more elegant stateliness. Together, by film’s end, they ultimately mean something different enough to Haley Joel Osment’s Walter so that it doesn’t feel like one character copied.
Of course, things don’t start off that way. Walter is none too happy to learn he’ll be spending a hot Texas summer with his uncles, Hub (Duvall) and Garth (Caine).
Without telephone or television, Hub and Garth’s idea of relaxation is iced tea and shotguns on the front porch — the latter for the pesky traveling salesmen who just never learn. Thankfully, that joke (teased at extensively in the preview) stops just short of overuse. But we sense, and Walter knows, he wouldn’t be any better off with the parent leaving him there — a flighty single mom (Kyra Sedgwick) who may or may not be going to a court-secretary college.
It is in the wake of her lies that Walter becomes curious about the truth behind his uncles’ inexplicable wealth. Prevailing thought is they were bank robbers or, worse yet, hit men. But Garth’s words and Hub’s actions inspire Walter and embolden him to make an important choice.
Writer-director Tim McCanlies has created a film in which there is one memorable scene after another, like a perfectly unified collection of short stories. As Garth and Hub finally open their wallets for extravagant purchases, they open up their extravagant past.
Through flashback segments lovingly evocative of The Princess Bride, Garth recounts these tales of his and Hub’s globe-hopping adventures. Lushly filmed like matinee-serial swashbucklers of old, the scenes are campy but exciting.
Whether they are true or not is the subject of much debate (albeit with a final answer). But Osment has a fine moment near film’s end when he realizes it doesn’t matter. Throughout the film, the young actor makes us believe in Walter’s sad convictions.
The film cranks up its emotional wattage for the resolution, but it’s certainly not cute-cute for everyone, and what could be a weeper is more refreshingly played for big laughs and heart.
Secondhand Lions is such a triumph all the way through and so enthralling that you leave thinking with affection about the characters and their charms. By stressing the importance of imagination and having something to believe in, it’s a great film and one of the best of the year.