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updated: 10/8/2010 8:22 AM

Lame 'Secretariat' deserves to be shot

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  • Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) and Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) cheer for their favorite racer in the under-horse sports drama "Secretariat.

    Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) and Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) cheer for their favorite racer in the under-horse sports drama "Secretariat.


If this movie were a horse, it would be shot.

You know, for being lame.

Randall Wallace's hokey, worshipful horse operetta "Secretariat comes to the big screen practically devoid of dramatic conflict, an essential ingredient for any successful story.

Wallace's movie follows the famous horse that won the 1973 Triple Crown, finishing its last race with such blinding speed that officials had to calculate it in Warp Speed. (Secretariat also appeared at the Arlington Race Track soon after the Crown.)

The horse's owner, Penny Chenery (Diane Lane, in an uncharacteristically affected, painfully strained performance), is a housewife married to a dull attorney (Dylan Walsh). They have four kids.

When Penny's mom passes away and her aging dad can no longer handle his Virginia horse farm, Penny takes over with help from Dad's reliable assistant, Ms. Hamm (consummate character actor Margo Martindale).

A coin toss decides which of two as-yet-unborn racing foals will go to Penny, and to zillionaire racing king Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell). She gets the foal she thinks will be a champion, the one she calls Big Red, and later, Secretariat.

Penny's Harvard economics professor brother Hollis (Dylan Baker) panics because the farm needs $6 million to pay debts, and he demands she sell the promising horse.

No way.

Penny's an independent American woman, given to uttering lines like "I will not live the rest of my life in regret!

Convinced her horse can be great, Penny hires the toughest jockey she can find: Ronnie Turcotte (real-life jockey Otto Thorwarth, who handles the role with dead-on realism). And she hires the trainer with the worst fashion sense she can find: Lucien Laurin (Steppenwolf alum John Malkovich).

Malkovich seizes this cheesy role with zeal, bumping up Laurin's sartorial and social eccentricities to abject clown proportions, actually poking fun of the very character he's been cast to portray. I'm not sure what movie Malkovich imagines Laurin is in, but it's not this one.

Wallace, aided and abetted by Mike Rich's sophomoric dialogue, directs "Secretariat to be a flat-out worship of a sports hero, albeit a horse.

The film's constant attempts to ascribe Mr. Ed-like human tendencies to Secretariat aren't nearly as odd as its strained religious implications.

Secretariat comes into the world in a stable, on a bed of hay resembling a manger, while wise men and women watch in awe.

The movie opens with Lane reading pretentious quotes from the book of Job. At two key moments, the hymn "Oh Happy Day adds to the ambiguous religious subtext.

Then there are the claps of thunder that echo from the heavens, vaguely signifying something profoundly spiritual, with no fully realized payoff, except as a marketing device for the Bible Belt.

Sometimes, Rich's screenplay ("suggested by William Nack's book "Secretariat: The Making of a Champion) offers up some sophomoric, hoot-inducing lines.

Take the scene where Penny peers into Secretariat's dreamy brown peepers and asks, "What does he see? When he looks at me, it's like he sees right through me!

(Is it just me, or is this scene even creepier than "Equus?)

Without any actual conflict in the story (nobody tries to stop Penny from her mad mission), Secretariat packs all the passion and excitement of a junior high book report.

Because we already know the outcome of the Triple Crown, Wallace is forced to manufacture fake suspense during the last race. The gates open, horses bolt and Secretariat sets the track ablaze!

"He's coming out too fast! reporter Bill Nack shouts.

"This is no good! reporter Andy Beyer chimes in.

"No horse can take this pace! Nack screeches.

"This is a catastrophe! Beyer bellows just before Secretariat wins by a record-breaking 31 lengths.

At least Penny's stick-in-the-mud hubby is man enough to admit when he's been wrong.

"You've taught the girls what a real woman is! Dad burbles, "and you taught me something, too!

Maybe he learned that everybody loves a winner.

I wish "Secretariat had been one.