Secretariat: movie review

( PG ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

In 'Secretariat,' Diane Lane plays Penny Chenery, owner of the greatest of all racehorses who, in 1973, won the Triple Crown.

John Bramley/Disney/AP
From second left, Diane Lane, Nelsan Ellis, Otto Thorwarth, and John Malkovich are shown in a scene from, 'Secretariat.'

How can a mere actor compete with the magnificent-looking chestnut stallion in "Secretariat"? You'd need a heroic presence akin to Sean Connery's to even come close.

Diane Lane plays Penny Chenery, owner of the greatest of all racehorses who, in 1973, won the Triple Crown – handily. A Denver housewife who inherits her ailing father's Virginia stables, Penny turns out to be a take-no-prisoners dynamo in a male-dominated business. Everything about her is imposing, starting with her rock-hard hairdos, which look as if they could withstand tsunamis.

Penny surrounds herself with a bastion of equally intransigent types: foppish French-Canadian trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), who is described as dressing like Superfly but looks more like Pinky Lee; jockey Ronnie Turcotte (real-life rider Otto Thorwarth, in an excellent debut), who appears to lack a nervous system; and Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis), the film's requisite horse whisperer.

He's about the only person in the movie who does whisper. Most of the time we're privy to stampede-inducing shoutfests. The racing scenes, easily the best thing in this otherwise uninspired piece of inspirationalism, come as a distinct relief. Malkovich, at least, is amusing, injecting some much-needed nuttiness into the proceedings. Lane is stuck with the dullest and deadest of the dialogue. Her overrehearsed, underfelt attempts at resuscitation compound the dullness.

Disney studios, director Randall Wallace, and his screenwriter Mike Rich, obviously targeting a "faith-based" audience à la "The Blind Side," lard the soundtrack with "Oh Happy Day" and readings from the Book of Job. This is odd, since Penny and Co. are not portrayed as especially churchgoing types. Are we supposed to think it was God's will that Secretariat made all that moola for all those breeders and bettors? Grade: C (Rated PG for brief mild language.)


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