The characters don’t sound like real human beings, only mindless automatons whose only utterances are akin to Debbie Downer’s discussion of feline AIDS.
There is no reason that a story as genuinely inspiring as the one told in Secretariat should have been turned into bloated drivel. The movie is not just bad; it’s unbearable. Every line of dialogue is weighted with so much intensity and drama that the actors are only allowed to emote with a grimace or a frown. The characters don’t sound like real human beings, only mindless automatons whose only utterances are akin to Debbie Downer’s discussion of feline AIDS.
Diane Lane wastes her talent as Penny Chenery, the real-life housewife and mother who led her horse to win the Triple Crown in 1973. What makes her accomplishment especially impressive is her ability to operate in the male-dominated world of horse racing, a fact that the movie will repeat ad nauseumthroughout the course of the exhausting two-hour runtime.
After her mother dies and her father (Scott Glenn) becomes too ill to manage the stable, Penny takes it upon herself to run the farm and raise a horse for racing. This decision comes much to the chagrin of her husband, Jack (Dylan Walsh) because she is not in the kitchen cooking for her family. With the help of a wildcard, you-don’t-know-what-he’s-gonna-do-next trainer, Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), Penny is determined to be taken seriously in a world where women are not expected to speak.
Randall Wallace, whose past films We Were Soldiers and The Man in the Iron Mask should give audiences an indication of his abilities as a director, seems not to notice how jumbled and ineffective his movie is. The story progresses quickly and spans a long period of time, but Wallace leaves the audience confused as to what year it is or how much the characters have aged. What actually takes years appears to be happening in a matter of weeks, which reflects Wallace’s inability to look at the big picture of making a film.
Lane is a terrific actress but her performance in Secretariat is one-dimensional and without conviction. As Penny, she displays only one character trait: determination to prove the male-dominated world wrong. That’s fine, but her motivation needs to be deeper than simply retribution. Lane’s only expression is anger, which makes for a very uninteresting performance. This is not solely her fault, as screenwriter Mike Rich uses the character only as a tool to further the message of the film and does not develop her as anything more.
Malkovich is incredibly boring as the supposedly off-the-wall Lucien Laurin. Again, screenwriter Rich has given the character only one identifiable trait—that is he dresses very strangely, which was uncouth at the time. See? Laurin is zany and unpredictable, get it? Malkovich looks like he is trying not to stab himself in the face with a pitchfork in most of his scenes, which leads one to wonder if he even read the script, or if he just wanted to hang out with horses. Either way, this is a severe blemish on the actor’s respectable body of work.
The only bright spot in an otherwise bland movie is Nelsan Ellis, who most people will know from the HBO series "True Blood." Ellis plays farmhand Eddie, whose true loyalty and bond lies with the horses. As he does in the vampire drama, Ellis approaches his role in a very unique and entertaining way. He gives Eddie a lot of heart and emotion that makes him the only enjoyable or authentic aspect of the entire movie. | Matthew F. Newlin