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This horse takes its good old time

Friday, July 25, 2003

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

Seabiscuit was a legendary come-from-behind champ. We automatically root for the underhorse (even more than the dog). It's a great American sports story. But is it the ultimate mythological parable for all of Depression-era America?

Jeff Bridges: down-home honest and handsome in "Seabiscuit."

Director Gary Ross thinks so, and his "Seabiscuit" is a big, beautiful, noble effort to render it as such. But this is a case of too much context, pretext and subtext obscuring the nice, simple text: a horse that's too small, a jockey that's too big, and an owner too idealistic to deny them a shot.

That owner is Jeff Bridges as Charles Howard, first of three co-heroes whom we meet at the outset, bored to death at his bike repair shop until suddenly forced to deal with a Stanley Steamer. Quick cuts give us the transformation -- of Howard and America -- from horse to car culture, and then back again full circle (symbolically, at least) to the new romanticized horse of the racetrack.

A happy Howard proposes a toast to the limitless future. But the immediate future is the '29 crash. And as America is laid low by the Depression, so is Howard by the tragic death of his son.



RATING: PG-13 for mildly profane language
STARRING: Jeff Bridges, Tobey Maguire, Chris Cooper


Enter the second co-hero: Tobey Maguire as Red Pollard, the feckless Irish boy with a riches-to-rags story: His ruined family turns him over to the tender mercies of wealthy sportsmen who'll exploit his dubious talents at racing and boxing.

Co-hero No. 3: Lonesome cowboy Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), beyond obsolescence, who stops a guy from killing a lame horse. Why? "You don't throw a whole life away just 'cause it's banged up a little."

Ross' elliptical storytelling is slow out of the gate in connecting these men to each other. It takes 35 minutes to get Howard married to and energized by his second wife (Elizabeth Banks, whose thankless chore for the rest of the film is to be June Cleaver). It takes 45 minutes to introduce Seabiscuit -- a star entrance postponed longer than Garbo's in "Grand Hotel."

It's about an hour into the running time before we get our first race, which is fine when it finally occurs. Likewise fine is the famous match race at Pimlico with War Admiral, whose fat owner, Samuel Riddle (Eddie Jones), is the closest thing to a "villain" in the picture.

Second only to De Niro, Bridges is my favorite actor of the '70s and '80s (brother Beau isn't far behind; papa Lloyd, well -- wet, he was a star). Jeff's the best -- I challenge you to name a better body of work by any actor of the period, and I tell you in advance you can't do it: "The Last Picture Show," "Fat City," "Lolly Madonna," "Last American Hero," "Iceman Cometh," "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot," "Rancho Deluxe," "Starman," "The Fabulous Baker Boys." He's as unpretentious, unpredictable, as down-home honest and handsome as they come. Here, he's lookin' and actin' like Will Rogers -- a low-key class act, as always.

Even lower key is Maguire as the problematic jockey. "He'll never race again," everybody keeps saying. Meaning horse or rider? Meaning both. It is a touching scene, indeed, when the lame biped and quadruped limp toward one another for their final triumphant test.

Lowest key of all is Cooper -- so low, he's off the chart. He may or may not have merited that best supporting actor Oscar for "Adaptation" last year, but he's badly miscast here.

Equally wrong are the two people-devices intended to provide "history": David McCullough is a good author but a lousy reader, duller than Aunt Thelmah's butter knife in his delivery of the pompous narration assigned to him. William H. Macy, meanwhile, is an over-the-top burlesque as the comic-relief radio announcer who gets unfunnier with every scene -- a horse's mouthpiece turned horse's ass.

Helmsman Ross (writer of "Big" and "Dave," director of "Pleasantville") has odd ideas about pacing and suspense. The minute Biscuit's big race starts, Ross cuts from the action to still shots of the crowd. The grandiosity of Laura Hillenbrand's book "Seabiscuit: An American Legend" is not the issue. It's the overblown screenplay based upon it -- written by the director. He might say, a la Father Guido Sarducci, "I blame-a myself." Ross didn't need the artsy-fartsy structure. He just needed to tell the story. All this fanfare for the common Man-o-War is gratuitous.

It's still fun to watch. "Seabiscuit" nicely shows and definitely places -- even as it fails to win, by more than a nose.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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