Secondhand Lions

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“Secondhand Lions” has all the makings of a hokey, ridiculous family-friendly drama, the kind of eye-rollingly oversimplified tale that uses charm to make up for its lack of smarts. I said it has the makings. Somehow, though, it avoids most of the pitfalls, some of the clichés and a good portion of the eye-rolling. It’s a good movie, swathed in the clothes of a bad one.

Our young friend Haley Joel Osment, who saw dead people in “The Sixth Sense” and was a robot boy in “A.I.,” plays an ordinary kid this time. He’s Walter, about 14 and the only child of a chronically irresponsible mother (Kyra Sedgwick) in the 1950s.

As we begin, Mom, a haggard woman approaching middle age and not wearing her promiscuity well, is going to attend the Ft. Worth College of Court Reporting. She leaves Walter in the care of his two old great-uncles, Garth (Michael Caine) and Hub (Robert Duvall) in rural Texas. According to family legend, Garth and Hub are rich, having earned, stolen or found money during the 40 years they were unaccounted for and traveling the world. Mom would like Walter to find this money, if he can, over the course of the summer.

Garth and Hub live a simple life on their dusty plot of land in the boonies. They don’t have a phone or television, or anything to do, really, other than aim shotguns at the steady stream of traveling salesmen who come by regularly. (Word of the brothers’ wealth has apparently spread beyond the borders of the family.)

Walter is alarmed, at first, by his uncles’ eccentricity, which reaches its zenith when they buy an old lion from a circus so they can let it loose on their property and hunt it. Or perhaps the zenith is when they buy a disassembled airplane with the intention of reassembling it and flying it, despite having no previous flight experience. At any rate, Walter and the old guys quickly grow on each other — this is not, fortunately, one of those movies all about a youngster melting the heart of a crusty old person — and develop a relationship of real familial compassion, albeit without any of that touchy-feely nonsense.

It’s what they call a coming-of-age story, I suppose, and it’s bookended by scenes of a grown-up Walter at work as a cartoonist, and then of him visiting the uncles’ ranch again. The ending, in particular, is unnecessary, even silly; there is no need for the present-day frame to what is otherwise a perfectly serviceable story.

Caine and Duvall are extremely praiseworthy as the uncles. There’s a surprisingly strong dynamic to their relationship; though I never really bought Caine’s Southern accent, I completely believed he and Duvall were brothers. They’re old coots, but they bring depth to old-coothood.

Osment is a little disappointing as Walter. He’s not bad; he’s just not as good as you’d expect, given his fantastic performances in the films previously mentioned. Some of this may be the fault of the screenplay (by Tim McCanlies, who also directed), which gives him only a couple of scenes in which to truly act, the rest of the time consigning him to reacting to Garth and Hub’s oddness.

It’s an altogether funny, charming piece, with much to hold a viewer’s interest in an uncomplicated, childlike way. The presence of a lion is bound to keep us watching, as are little elements like a mysterious picture in the attic and Uncle Hub’s nightly sleepwalking. It also has an old-fashioned cliffhanger-style adventure story running through it, as Garth tells Walter about his and Hub’s exploits in the Middle East during World War I. For much of the film, if we let ourselves, we can become young and curious, too, just like Walter. It’s a good feeling.

B (1 hr., 44 min.; PG, some mild profanity, a little violence.)

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