The last time Haley Joel Osment and Michael Caine met was at the Academy Awards when Caine triumphed as Best Supporting Actor for The Cider House Rules over Osment’s groundbreaking performance in The Sixth Sense. Caine, the consummate professional, was very gracious to the runner-up in his acceptance speech. Now his fatherly advice seems ironic as Caine takes on the role of one of Osment’s surrogate fathers in “Secondhand Lions.”
Every year, there is the inevitable diatribe in the press about how there should be more PG-rated family films, with pundits bemoaning the fact that so many movies are full of sex and violence. I’m not one of those people, considering that I thought some of the best movies of the summer carried the R rating – such as (in my humble opinion) The Matrix: Reloaded, Terminator 3 and Open Range. (What can I say? I’ve got a soft spot for sex and violence.) However, “Secondhand Lions” will definitely make these PG-philes happy.
Osment plays Walter, a teenager whose mother (Kyra Sedgwick) leaves on a whim and strands him on a Texas farm with his crotchety uncles Garth (Michael Caine) and Hub (Robert Duvall). Of course, Walter’s mother actually has an ulterior motive. Garth and Hub are known to have a huge fortune stashed somewhere on the property. She wants to get her hands on it as much as all of the other relatives.
Soon Walter, who could give a hoot about the money, learns to get along with Garth and Hub. He is enthralled with the stories Garth tells of their adventures in the French Foreign Legion where they fought countless battles and survived assassination attempts by wealthy sheiks and murderous thugs.
“Secondhand Lions” is basically a coming-of-age story of Walter who finally finds a home with these two old codgers. But it is also a coming-of-age story of Garth and Hub, who learn to love Walter as well. And the remarkable thing is that the movie pulls it off without being corny or stupid (except for one excruciatingly cheesy line delivered by a little kid in the end of the movie).
It’s a feel-good movie, but not in a bad way. It makes you feel good the way that “Forrest Gump” made you feel good, as if the filmmakers were seriously trying to make a fun, wholesome, entertaining movie without taking on the industry with a moral agenda.
What really makes this film work is its cast – purely its cast. A lesser cast would have turned out a film replete with schmaltziness and cheese. But the uber-professionals Michael Caine and Robert Duvall take an otherwise run-of-the-mill coming-of-age flick and turn it into a heartwarming tale. And let’s not forget the contributions of Haley Joel Osment, who has gone through some serious puberty since we last saw him in A.I., but still has some good acting chops.
Duvall plays the same grizzled old man that helped make Open Range a great film. Sure, Duvall has been in his fair share of stinkers (such as the pitiful Deep Impact or the forgettable Gone in 60 Seconds), but his stock character shines here.
Perhaps I just have a soft spot for this kind of character because I’ve known plenty in my life. Hub may seem a little over the top – especially when he single-handedly beats the tar out of four young punks – until you realize there are people actually like this in real life. My grandfather was raised in the coal-mining district along the Pennsylvania/West Virginia border. He returns there several times a year, often during hunting season. When he was in his late 60s, he hurt his back and bought an ATV so he could haul game from the woods after he caught it. One day, after leaving his ATV and hunting rifle in the barn, he woke to find them stolen. So my 70-year-old grandfather and 60-year-old overweight cousin tracked down the three 17-year-old punks that stole the ATV, beat the holy shale out of them, took back their property and were home in time for supper.
I also have a great uncle who once broke his hip in the hospital because he took a swing at a male nurse and missed. And my other grandfather once walked out of his hospital bed after thyroid surgery because he couldn’t handle lying still in a bed for three days. Everyone’s got someone like this in their family, and if they don’t, they’re missing a whole lot of color in their roots. It’s these kind of memories of stubborn charm that add warmth to “Secondhand Lions.”
The film manages to walk a tightrope between a warm, friendly family coming-of-age piece and a swashbuckling adventure in flashbacks to Garth and Hub’s earlier years. Even though I went to the theater in a bad mood, I found myself feeling really good when I got out. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
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