Penny Chenery, the genteel Virginia-born owner of the title racehorse in “Secretariat,” might be the first movie character I’ve seen who is composed entirely of speeches. She has something stirring and passionate to say for every occasion, even occasions that do not call for stir or passion. Everything’s a dramatic moment for her.
“When I went off to college I felt like that colt — full of promise, full of adventure!” she declares upon seeing a young horse. When she learns that her teenage daughter is putting on a play to protest the Vietnam War, she says, apropos of nothing, “Our political beliefs can change, but our need to do what’s right doesn’t.” This is to remind you that the movie is about Doing What’s Right (or at least that it thinks it is), and that she, Penny Chenery, has done what’s right. A stranger asks her what time it is and you half-expect her to launch into a discourse on the fleeting nature of time while the music swells on the soundtrack.
“Secretariat” is so intent on being inspiring that it forgets nearly everything else, including story and character. Directed by Randall Wallace (“We Were Soldiers”) and written by Mick Rich (“Finding Forrester,” “The Rookie,” “Radio”), it recounts the true events of 1972-73, when a horse named Secretariat ran faster than some other horses and thereby won a lot of money for its owners. There’s a good chance you already know that Secretariat won the Triple Crown; if you don’t, the movie makes it clear early on that he’s going to, with characters constantly saying things like, “The Triple Crown? Why, no horse has done that in 25 years!” and “If he doesn’t win the Triple Crown, you’ll lose the family farm!” You get the idea. The movie makes SURE you get the idea.
The marvelous Diane Lane, looking Betty Draper-esque in a blond wig, plays Penny, who becomes the executrix of her family’s horse-breeding operation after her father lapses into senility. Living in Denver with her lawyer husband (Dylan Walsh) and children, Penny takes time to head back to Virginia and sort things out. The stables, badly mismanaged, are losing money. But a new colt has just been born, and the li’l fella is so eager to race that he started walking mere moments after being expelled from the womb!
Penny fires the farm’s current trainer, who is impolite and greedy, and hires Lucien Laurin, a flamboyant and mercurial French-Canadian played by John Malkovich. Discouraged by past losses, Lucien has threatened to quit the business and take up golf, but secretly he is passionate about winning again. (Well, he is passionate about training a horse that will win. Lucien himself is not required to race.) The groom, Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis), is sensitive and gentle, beloved by all horses, a giant within the horse community.
The paint-by-numbers screenplay flirts half-heartedly with a number of cliches, never fully committing to any of them. Penny is away from home too much, upsetting her husband and kids; then the crisis passes and everything is apparently OK. Penny’s brother, Hollis (Dylan Baker), disagrees vehemently with Penny’s decision to leverage the farm against Secretariat’s success rather than just selling it; after a while Hollis isn’t even in the movie anymore. There is old-boys-clubs sexism against Penny, on account of she’s a WOMAN, and who ever heard of a WOMAN owning a racehorse?? — then all of that just sort of goes away.
Most crucially, it is alleged that Penny is something of a horse whisperer with Secretariat, that they can practically speak to one another because they are so close. But when did that happen? Whatever scenes would have established Penny bonding with the horse didn’t make it into the film. She continues to insist that she KNOWS Secretariat can win these races; how she came to be so in tune with her half-ton meal ticket is never demonstrated. It’s like this is the template of a generically inspiring movie without any of the details filled in.
The respectable cast, which also includes familiar character actress Margo Martindale as Penny’s dad’s secretary, does what it can to enliven things, and it’s not like the film is terrible. The film isn’t anything. That’s the problem. It’s a weak mediocrity that inspires no strong feelings one way or the other.
C (1 hr., 56 min.; )