Movie Review: Secretariat

Is Secretariat corny?

Well, put it this way: Does a racehorse love to run?

You bet. And just as you'd imagine with a family-targeted movie about a horse, Randall Wallace's Secretariat is awash in sentimentality. The lump in your throat is as pro forma as the popcorn.

The longer Secretariat goes on, the thicker Wallace and screenwriter Mike Rich lay it on. The inspirational moments may not have a subtitle saying "Here's the message," but they should. With all of that overt Disney Channel-style nostalgizing, it is probably a plus that most viewers already know that Secretariat wins the Triple Crown. Otherwise, the manipulation would seem even more shameless.

And yet ... Oh, I know I should know better. But Secretariat got to me, mostly because of the way Wallace filmed the races -- and because of the heartfelt and mostly underplayed performances by the film's principals.

I particularly like Diane Lane, who plays Penny Chenery, who inherits the failing horse farm where her father has bred the colt that will become Secretariat. Lane has been acting in films since she was barely a teen (anyone remember the charming A Little Romance, in which she held her own as a 14-year old with then-72-year-old Sir Laurence Olivier). She has matured into an actress who can handle big emotions -- but who rarely needs them because her work is usually so distinct and subtle.

Penny comes home to her father's Virginia horse farm in the late 1960s after the death of her mother. Her father (an underutilized Scott Glenn -- when is someone going to give this guy a decent part again?) has dementia. And her Harvard professor brother (Dylan Baker) is all for selling the farm at a loss and getting on with his life.

But Penny wants to keep the farm going. She studies the books and the horse charts and does her research. She discovers that two of her father's mares are expected to foal -- and the sire was a Hall of Famer named Bold Ruler. She does her homework and decides in advance that the seemingly less desirable foal could be a champion, if she's reading the genetics right.

Which, of course, she is. The gimmick here is that Penny is a Denver housewife, dividing her time between Virginia (and the training of the horse) and the household she manages for her lawyer husband (Dylan Walsh) and their four kids. She's an underdog before she even starts, which is usually the starting point for an inspirational film.

An underdog to everyone but herself, of course.