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Review: Secretariat

Underdog drama stumbles out of the gate, races to finish line

Far be it from me to discourage anyone from "going for it," but Hollywood's love of unlikely heroes and long-shot winners may have harmful consequences. In the glossy underdog (underhorse?) drama Secretariat, Diane Lane's feminist trail-blazing owner bets the farm, literally, on the untested thoroughbred's ability to win the Triple Crown. Meanwhile, outside the multiplex, reckless financial gambles over the past decade nearly wrecked the U.S. economy. Secretariat applauds the kind of behavior that blew up in our collective face.

Of course, no one expects a movie studio to spend a fortune on horse racing's most spectacular failures. The paradox is that if we've heard of a famous horse (or comparable success story), a biopic's ending will be a fait accompli. With Secretariat, two big, predictable competitions set your pulses racing, even while the rest of the movie musters barely a trot.

Diane Lane plays Penny Chenery Tweedy, an impeccable, Betty Draper-ish housewife and mother who puts her homemaking duties aside in the late 1960s when her dad (Scott Glenn) takes sick. The family's successful horse farm suffers hard times, so Penny takes charge, sacks the sneeringly sexist horse trainer and takes on her dad's plucky longtime assistant (Margo Martindale) as her advisor. Despite some huge debts, Penny discovers that some of the farm's mares are pregnant with potential champions.

Secretariat's scenes about the arcana of horse breeding prove unexpectedly intriguing, and suggest that a great Ken Burns documentary could be made from the material. In a quirky tradition, Penny competes with a condescending zillionaire investor (James Cromwell) over who gets pick of the new foals, decided on the toss of a coin. Penny goes for the counterintuitive choice, a chestnut thoroughbred nicknamed "Big Red" who races under the name Secretariat.

Penny assembles a team that includes a horse-whispering groom (Nelsan Ellis), a combative jockey (Otto Thorwarth) and eccentric retired trainer Lucian Laurin (John Malkovich). Faced with a $6 million inheritance tax, Penny raises money by offering shares in Secretariat, comparable to a company's Initial public offering. If the horse doesn't win the three races of the Triple Crown, Penny stands to lose everything. Lane carries herself with impeccable poise throughout the movie without coming across as snobbish or icy like Betty Draper on a bad day.

That seems to be ample conflict for any film, but director Randall Wallace and screenwriter Mike Rich present the sexist opposition to Penny's efforts with such a heavy hand, it's as if they're lecturing schoolchildren. Penny barges into a men's club to confront a local horse honcho, apparently just so a fussy functionary can trail after her disapprovingly. Penny's husband (Dylan Walsh) proves tediously unsupportive and jerky. In fact, the arc of the character's scenes goes basically like this: jerky, jerky, jerky, slightly less jerky, and finally, "Sorry I was so jerky."

Like the film's obvious role model Seabiscuit, Secretariat avoids anthropomorphizing the title character in a cutesy way. Unfortunately, we only get a sense of the horse's personality second hand. At one point Malkovich sighs, "He lays against the back of the starting gate like he's on a hammock in the Caribbean," which is a great line, but we have to take his word for it, because we never see this for ourselves. Similarly, Secretariat would apparently pose for cameras in a sign of his spunk, but the audience only knows this when people say, "He's posing for the cameras!"

Apart from quotations of equine passages from the Book of Job, Secretariat unfolds in a numblingly predictable fashion. Nevertheless, the build-up, editing and photography of the Kentucky Derby and climactic Belmont Stakes races generate a surprising level of excitement. The latter, in particular, presents the audience with coherent strategies for Seabiscuit's training regimen and his competitor's plans to defeat the horse. And if you don't know the precise details of the outcome, you'll find them genuinely remarkable. Secretariat pours out a burst of energy in the home stretch, even though the audience's attention has already been lost.