This is the movie review arena of Dave Mitchell and Trevor Taylor. We are fed up with stupid critics who pick the movies that nobody goes to watch. (BEWARE: PLOT-DETAILS/SPOILERS INCLUDED!!!)

Monday, February 02, 2004

Better Than Critics Comeback Tour 2004

Back and better than ever, baby. Let's do this.

Seabiscuit(PG-13): contains language, mild violence, a suggestive scene

I was really hard on this movie when the Academy Awards were announced. Because I considered it "the stupid horse movie" without having seen it.

Well, I've seen it. It was entertaining. But it's not worthy of the great praise it's being given.

The story concerns the career of Red Pollard, the angry young man who becomes an angry half-blind young jockey riding an angry young horse. Okay, that's oversimplification. How about this?

The film knows that it's supposed to be a "tear-jerker" so it tries too early to squeeze some tears out of the audience. Young Red is all but sold into slavery by his starving Dust Bowl parents, to a man who wants to make the boy a jockey, and ends up being physically abusive to him. I tried really hard to feel something, but it was just too quick, too soon. I hadn't got to know the character at all. Another boy is killed in a car-wreck, which is tragic, yes, but so manipulative. Of course you're supposed to cry when kids die. [There was a recent Slate article about the use of dead children to shock audiences in recent films. Hmmm...] But you don't know anything about this kid, other than that he reads Flash Gordon and is the only child of Jeff Bridges' character. Then, Bridges' wife leaves him, ostensibly because of the child's death, though it could be because the Great Depression has made Bridges' plans of eternal wealth vanish. They're not the Joad family, by any stretch, but his plans of selling high-priced racecars vanishes. So then Bridges is sad. And he goes to Mexico, meets a girl, and marries her. Pretty much as abruptly as I've described it. There is another sub-plot about a cowboy played by Oscar-winner Chris Cooper, whose life is completely destroyed by the mechanized march of "progress" that devoured the romantic Old West. Of course, you get one scene of Cowboy Cooper riding across the open range, only to find a barbed wire fence, which he studies as if it were as foreign as DSL cable. Then, the next scene in this plot is Hobo Cooper, riding the rails westward.

Of course, we can't go into any of these stories in great detail, and realistically tell these stories. It is, after all, called "Seabiscuit" and not "The Amazing Adventures of the Sad Divorced Childless Former Car Salesman and the Ex-Cowboy Whose Life Was Destroyed by Westward Industrial Expansion, and Oh Yeah, There's Also A Child Slave Who Races Horses". The director, who's best known for the under-appreciated "Pleasantville", doesn't believe that these stories can be told at all, more than a few token scenes to "establish character motivation."

Then there is the trite movie themes inserted into the dialogue. "You can't throw away a life just because they're a little banged up." Ah yes, grasshoppa, you hear this at least three times. And their eyes meet in a "meaningful" moment. Hmmm... reminds me of another Tobey Maguire movie where the theme is beaten to death in the script. ("With great power comes..." what, anyone?)

I know, I'm cynical. But I really wanted to feel something during this movie, and the dramatic moments were too shallow to really get me.

Also, the voiceover dialogue was supposed to give historical context to all of the action of the movie, but it did more to pull me out of the story, than to keep me grounded in it. The only time it worked for me was during the race when there was no voice-over dialogue, just the still picture of the people standing, listening to the race on the car radio. That was a nice effect.

All this is not to say I wasn't entertained, cuz I was (so back off, Maximus). The racing scenes were exciting. The big race against the national champ horse was very exciting. The final race had the kind of heart-in-my-throat sports-movie thrill I get with the better sports movies. I got caught up in it. But when the movie tried to be sentimental and dramatic, it fell flat, because it was written flatly. The quote Red uses when the betrayal is revealed is totally out of character, out of the moment. And yet, we are supposed to accept it, to go, "Oh, yeah, cuz his father made him quote classical literature as a child." If it had come up more often in his dialogue, it would have been more natural to hear it. (Okay, okay, there was the Shakespeare quote to the reporters, but that's not enough for me, I guess.)

The thing I liked most was Jeff Bridges' character portrayal. It wasn't great, but it was the *most* believable. And the story of the fellow jockey who apparently became his friend somewhere, though I couldn't figure out where--that was kinda neat.

Maybe I'm just being too hard on this film. In fact, I'm sure I am, but it's only because I wanted more meat on the bone for my two and a half hours of viewing. In the end, as Red would probably say out of nowhere, it was "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Or maybe just a little. But not much.

Like the eponymous equine, this film starts out slow, doesn't really impress through the first three turns, and then rallies in the home stretch. But crossing the Oscar finish line ahead of the "King"? Hardly. Jackson's epic wins by much more than a nose.

RATING: "Rock on, I suppose, because you can't throw a whole movie away, just because it's banged up a bit."

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