By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Diane Lane borrows Sandra Bullock's blond wigs and can-do attitude for Secretariat, a horse movie that feels like a lazy workout rather than a high-stakes race. Secretariat is a strenuously familiar feel-good flick that may as well be subtitled The Blinders Side.
The title is misleading since the greatest race horse ever is merely a supporting player in director Randall Wallace's version of well-known events. I guess "Penny Chenery Tweedy" wouldn't look as sharp on a theater marquee. But it's Lane who's saddled with dragging this nag over the finish line, with her cliched portrayal of another single-minded woman beating men at their own game.
Bullock did it much better, just as 2003's Seabiscuit eclipses Secretariat in the competition between horse racing movies. It's really no contest.
The horse Seabiscuit was an underdog all the way, and they're always more interesting: smaller than the competition, carrying a jockey's emotional baggage and a nation's need for a silver living to the Great Depression. The horse was the people. His unlikely path to posterity was relatively unknown, and surprises make better movies. The breakneck racing scenes in Gary Ross' film were superior to Wallace's on all counts (you didn't spot stunt jockeys easing the reins to let the star pass in Seabiscuit).
On the other hoof, Secretariat was God's perfect creature and we've memorized how things turned out. Secretariat famously won the Triple Crown when Vietnam's disappointment was sinking in (also Watergate's, although it isn't mentioned in the movie). Yet Wallace trivializes the era's social unrest with a corny antiwar skit and dinner table disagreement. There's no stirring sense of Secretariat running for a nation because we're constantly steered to his feisty owner with something to prove.
Lane's portrayal of Penny is dictated by the screenplay's push-button emotionality: frowns and choked tears when parents die or financial ruin is close, steely resolve when anyone says Penny shouldn't be doing what she's doing, and misty-eyed happiness when things go right. Everything may be true, but that doesn't make it compelling. Even a talent like Lane can't shuffle this stacked deck.
Appearing slightly more comfortable is John Malkovich, wearing the gaudy wardrobe and indiscernible accent of trainer Lucien Laurin. It's a typically wacko Malkovich role thankfully out of place with the movie's according-to-form nature. His verbal sparring with Penny's motherly assistant (Margo Martindale) provides the film's few amusing moments.
Secretariat was cheered by a sneak preview crowd each time the horse won, so there's an audience for it somewhere. But in the race for supremacy among horse racing movies, Seabiscuit wins by several lengths. Toss in the horses in better adventures Dreamer and Hidalgo and Wallace's movie finishes out of the money.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.