October 8, 2010 at 7:47 am

Tom Long

Review: 'Secretariat' is slowed by clichés but still offers fine family fare

Tom Long reviews 'Secretariat'
Tom Long reviews 'Secretariat': Tom Long reviews 'Secretariat'

“Secretariat” is a winner, but only by a few lengths.

The admittedly extraordinary story of the now-legendary racehorse is presented in a Disney film format, which makes it family friendly, efficient and just a bit too twinkly-clean for its own good. The corn here is higher than it needs to be.

Luckily, the simple facts of Secretariat’s racing career, combined with his apparent penchant for coming from behind, make for a pretty thrilling ride no matter what the surroundings.

And in truth, director Randall Wallace and writer Mike Rich do come up with a smart angle on the story. Everybody loves an underdog, but Secretariat was never really an underdog. So the film focuses on the horse’s unlikely benefactor and owner, Penny Chenery (Diane Lane).

Chenery is a Denver housewife and mom in the early ’70s when her horse ranch-owning father (Scott Glenn) dies, and the pressure from all sides is to sell the farm. But Chenery wants to stick with the family business, against the wishes of both her brother (Dylan Baker) and husband (Dylan Walsh).

She thinks she can make a go of the place because of the bloodlines that have led to a new foal, the horse that will grow to be Secretariat. So she fights off family, imperils her marriage and misses her children to keep the ranch going.

She hires an eccentric trainer — films like this always have eccentric trainers — given to gaudy outfits named Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich, playing as wide as the film). And sure enough Secretariat starts winning races.

But the farm is still going under and now Chenery is under pressure to sell Secretariat, take the money and run. What will she do?

All these fiscal tensions are relieved by pounding racing scenes, of course, as well as much worshipful horse-flesh cinematography.

And the emotional-spiritual quotient is raised by some sort of mystical bond between horse and owner that involves staring into one another’s eyes.

Lane — honestly, has she ever been bad in anything? — elevates the proceedings here, marching through the corn with steely deliberation, filling Chenery with enough gumption to take on the seeming impossible without turning her into a cliché.

The film goes out of its way to remind us of the roiling social times in which Secretariat captured the nation’s fancy — Chenery’s oldest daughter (Amanda Michalka) is a hippie peace activist of sorts while Chenery herself is reflective of the new feminist movement.

But too many of the characters are laughable caricatures, from Kevin (“Entourage”) Connolly as a sports reporter straight out of some bad ’30s movie and Nestor Serrano as a loud-mouthed rival horse owner.

Still, the movie thrills whenever Secretariat hits the track and the moral lessons here — perseverance, ingenuity, feminist strength, following one’s heart — are all as valid as they are obvious.

This is the sort of film where everyone gathers for a big visual group hug in the winner’s circle at the end, a time-honored bit of schlock that reflects both the comfort level and limits of “Secretariat.” It’s a winner, but you’ve run this race before.

tlong@detnews.com

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Disney’s latest movie, “Secretariat,” chronicles the journey of the 1973 Triple Crown winner amid off-track financial issues. / Walt Disney Pictures
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