'Seabiscuit' swerves off track

Racehorse movie has heart, but falls short of winners' circle

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

This is quite a year for Seabiscuit, the most famous racehorse of the Depression and World War II years. Laura Hillenbrand's bestseller about him remains in bookstores everywhere. A widely watched TV movie recently chronicled his career. And now the trifecta is complete with a lavish Hollywood treatment of the tale.

I wish I could report it triumphs by a length over its none-too-distinguished summer competition, but I found much of it as emotionally rigged as a crooked horse race. While fans of feel-good movies may make it a rousing hit, it won't satisfy anyone who values the surprise and suspense of real sporting events in the world we actually live in.

The story gets off to a slow start as we meet the main characters. Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) is a gifted car salesman, one of the first to peddle automobiles in the Western states. Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) is an eccentric loner who lives in a makeshift camp with a horse whose life he once saved. Johnny "Red" Pollard (Tobey Maguire) is the young son of a book-loving businessman who loses everything in the 1929 crash and leaves his boy to make a living from his riding skills.

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What unites this trio is a creature more unlikely than the three of them put together: Seabiscuit, a runty little racer with an ungainly gallop and a distinct flair for losing. He's so unpromising that his original owners train him to fail so their stronger nags will gain confidence by leaving him in the dust.

But he has spirit, as Howard and his new employees somehow sense, and under their tutelage he becomes a steady winner. He also becomes a popular symbol of the "little guy" in a troubled historical era, inspiring down-and-out Americans with his ability to beat horses far larger, handsomer, and seemingly stronger than he.

That's quite a story, and this should have been quite a movie. The trouble with "Seabiscuit" is that writer-director Gary Ross never goes a millimeter beneath the surface of the characters. He substitutes a superficial brand of "uplift" and "inspiration" for a thoughtful look at what made this undersized horse and his dedicated handlers so special.

How does Seabiscuit squelch formidable competitors? He has "heart." How does Tom tame a wild white stallion that all the experts have given up on? "Heart" again. How does Red overcome disability and recover from an awful injury despite all prognoses? You guessed it. The only thing that's clear is how Howard manages to launch and sustain the little horse's career. The answer in this case is "money," the driving force behind horse-racing enterprises and the gambling that goes with them.

Exploring this aspect of Seabiscuit's career would have given the story some depth. But it would also have interfered with the film's unbridled emotionalism, so Mr. Ross stays away from it.

Nor does he show any curiosity about why no member of the Seabiscuit team has any interest in a normal home and family life. Are these dedicated professionals whose devotion we'd do well to emulate in our own lives, or a trio of weirdos with an equine obsession that just happens to start paying off?

We never get much chance to ponder such questions because Ross uses every trick in the Hollywood book to keep them in the background. Even with its lengthy running time of well over two hours, "Seabiscuit" swerves around social and psychological matters as resolutely as the title character weaves his way into winning position almost every time he runs.

Feel-good movies have an excellent track record, and I won't be surprised if this one pulls in profits worthy of Seabiscuit himself. "Seabiscuit" may bring a tear to your eye and a lump to your throat, but don't expect to be cheering at the finish line.

Rated PG-13; contains vulgar language.

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