Secondhand Lions is a positive movie with some important things to say both about growing up and growing old. It's also a story about finding something to put faith in, whether it be true or not. "If you want to believe something, then BELIEVE in it!” says Robert Duvall's crusty old character, Uncle Hub.
A somewhat sentimental tale, Secondhand Lions is told over the course of a few week in either the 50's or 60's when fourteen year old Walter (Haley Joel Osment) is dropped rather unexpectedly on the doorstep of his eccentric old uncles for an extended stay. What follows is another one of those coming-of-age stories, which distinguishes itself from the pack by casting Michael Caine and Robert Duvall as two retired legends. What would Indiana Jones be like if he grew too old for treasure hunting and retired to an extremely rural spread somewhere in the middle of Texas? That's the best way to describe Hub and Garth, Walter's two suspiciously rich and extremely eccentric relatives.
Michael Caine and Robert Duvall are great. Isn’t that a given at this point? This is really supposed to be a story focused around Osment’s character, but they are what make it worthwhile with their weird and wild advice on life. In fact, I think I’d rather see this movie without Osment. I want to know more about Hub and Garth. What happens when Hub loses his one great love and spends the rest of his life in the foreign legion? What was life like for Garth leading excursions into the African savannah? How did they grow old? Why did they retire? These two old birds are the world’s coolest retirees, in love with life in a way that so few of us in these cynical times can any longer understand.
But the main reason I’d rather see Haley Joel Osment excised from this film is a simpler one. He’s bad. Dead. Empty inside. I realize he was once considered Hollywood’s greatest child actor, but he isn’t a child anymore. I think the idea was for Secondhand Lions to be a transitional role for him; the place where he steps across the great acting divide from great child actor to great teenage actor. With two acting gurus like Duvall and Caine there to lead the way, this should have been a home run for him. It isn’t. He’s lost. It’s almost as if never having been a “real” teenager he doesn’t know how to behave as one. Even more than that, there’s just a hollow emptiness behind his eyes that makes every move he makes seem plastic. He can’t even sit on the ground staring at the sun without seeming off. When he does emote it’s overdone. When he doesn’t emote he seems like a pathetic puppet with inexpertly pulled strings.
Writer/Director Tim McCanlies has an almost annoying tendency to get cute, but again, that obvious manipulation is smartly balanced by the work of Caine and Duvall. McCanlies takes a very rural, plain, shooting location, which incidentally is exactly the area in which I grew up, and imbues it with a fantastical and dusty life. Hub and Garth’s spread is a wonderland of fishing ponds, jungle-like cornfields, rickety old porches, and spooky attic bedrooms.
Secondhand Lions is too great a film to be completely destroyed by the fading abilities of an awkward man-child. The story of Hub and Garth is a beautiful one, as is their growing affection for Walter. Told in a series of brief, narrated flashbacks interspersed throughout the movie, Walter slowly uncovers the truth about his Uncle’s past. They give him something to believe in, and through him his Uncle’s find a way to live life without the adventure of youth. Walter gives them a reason to keep living while Secondhand Lions gives us a new and intrinsically positive way to look at life.