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Laramie Movie Scope:
Secondhand Lions

Quirky coming-of-age story raises questions of what is worth believing

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by Patrick Ivers, Film Critic
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(2003) "Just find out where they stashed all that money," Mae (Kyra Sedgwick) says to her teenage boy, Walter (Haley Joel Osment), as she dumps him off with his two great-uncles, Hub (Robert Duvall) and Garth McCann (Michael Caine), on their Texas farm for the summer. Neither of the old bachelor codgers being happy to have "a sissy boy" on their hands, they tell him he'll have fend for himself. Garth says: "Hey, we don't know nothing about kids."

Out in the middle of nowhere, living inside an old ramshackle, multistory house, with shotguns, dogs, and a pig, but without electricity (so how do they have fresh meat for every meal without a freezer?) or telephone, Walter asks them: "What do you do?" They shoot at anyone who comes around trying to get them to buy stuff or convince them to make an investment with their money.

Sent to a room in the tower, Walter finds a locked trunk and a key: inside is a photograph of a beautiful woman beneath a layer of sand. Sometimes in the middle of the night Hub ("a restless spirit") sleepwalks, wielding a toilet plunger like a saber. Garth - who's more sympathetic than his cynical, headstrong brother - begins to explain to Walter how they'd been in Africa.

After a family of five relations shows up, their only interest being in getting their hands on the money by means of a favorable will (the father's a lawyer), and Walter finds out that his mother didn't enroll in a college court-reporter course in Ft Worth ("She lied again"), the McCanns, noticing their relatives have taken a dislike to the boy, ask him as a favor to stay on for awhile longer - as Walter's expressed a desire to head north to Montana - at least until the other family departs.

In this quirky coming-of-age film, set in the early '60s, writer/director Tim McCanlies juxtaposes the story of the fantastic adventures of the young McCanns with Walter's mundane struggle to define his own identity, raising questions of what is worth believing.

While sleepwalking, Hub is looking for Jasmine, Garth tells Walter, then continues the story of their trip to Europe in the summer of 1914, arriving just as the Germans invaded France; they were shanghaied in Marseilles and forcibly enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. In praise of his brother, Garth gushes on that Hub fought like twenty men and became the best horseman in North Africa, which led to his encountering in a race on the beach - "once in a lifetime, love at first sight" - an Arabian princess.

Interrupted again, Walter receives a lying letter from his mother in Las Vegas. The McCanns purchase a "used" lion they intend to shoot out of the crate. When Walter complains of this not being a very sporting endeavor, Hub replies: "At our age, this is as sporting as we get." The lion is "defective," old and worn-out, and a female; Walter asks to have it for his pet, naming her Jasmine.

"We outlived our time," Hub, feeling useless tilling the soil of their corn patch, gripes to Garth, who replies: "Gardening is what retired people do."

Promised to a sheik who locked her up in his harem, Jasmine (Emmanuelle Vaugier) was rescued single-handedly by Hub in a daring gambit, Garth recounts: "They got married and lived happily ever after."

In town an older teen with his three pals, harassing the two old men and the boy, demands snidely of Hub: "Who do you think you are?" Standing up to the punk, Hub expatiates on his exploits: "I fought in two world wars and countless smaller ones on three continents and led thousands of men in battle with everything from horses and swords to artillery and tanks. I've seen the headwaters of the Nile and tribes of natives no white man had ever seen before. I've won and lost a dozen fortunes, killed many men, and loved only one woman with a passion a flea like you could never understand. That's who I am."

He then proceeds to take on the toughs single-handedly while Garth cheers him on. Afterward Hub gives the roughed-up ruffians his "What Every Boy Needs to Know to Be a Man" speech.

Doubtful of the "happily ever after" conclusion Garth had given, Walter requests further explanation of what happened. The sheik, hating Hub for stealing the princess, put a price on his head of 10,000 gold pieces; Garth, disguised as an assassin, delivered Hub to the sheik in another implausible stratagem. As to what eventually happened to Jasmine, Garth says Walter will have to ask Hub.

A rumor Walter hears has it that his uncles are ex-Mafia hitmen who stole their fortune from Al Capone. Or they were infamous bank robbers who killed lots of innocent people in accumulating their loot, Jasmine having been their getaway driver. "Just because something isn't true," Hub explains to Walter, "that's no reason you can't believe in it."

One major disappointment I had is with the ending, which should have remained ambiguous, because in clearing up the mystery, the movie's de trop denouement diminishes the thrust of Hub's speech.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2010 Patrick Ivers. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Patrick Ivers can be reached via e-mail at nora's email address at juno. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)