Monday, May 14, 2012

I'm No More A Fan of Horse Racing Movies Than I Am Of Horse Racing: I Get Bored By Seabiscuit

The Good: The acting
The Bad: Plot is dull and predictable, Nothing Earth-shattering on the character front
The Basics: It's a horse racing movie. No matter what the character struggles, Seabiscuit all comes down to the ability of a horse. Sigh.

I suppose that every person enjoys a different type of movie and in considering that, I think I am almost ready to conclude that I'm not a huge fan of sports movies. Seabiscuit came highly recommended and I finished the movie with a rather disappointed feeling. I tend to enjoy movies about underdogs and people of courage who overcome their limitations to do whatever they feel they need to do. I respect those types of characters. In Seabiscuit, I encountered two things that basically failed to engage me: 1. Horse racing is no more about the athleticism and ability of man than cockfighting is, and 2. Because much of the action hinges on things that happened in reality, for a story like this to work, the characters have to be approached in a way that is, well, interesting.

Seabiscuit finds the day of the horse firmly in decline with the rise of the automobile. Enter millionaire Charles Howard, who is as down on his luck as someone with money can be during the Depression. He acquires an awkward horse named Seabiscuit and hires Tom Smith to train him. Smith begins to train the horse with Red Pollard as the jockey. They yell at each other, the horse wins some races, people get hurt, the horse gets hurt, then they try again.

This movie is about many things, mostly comebacks. It is about taking a chance on something that does not quite fit the norm. As Howard notes at one point, "The horse is too small, the jockey is too big, the trainer too old, and I'm too dumb to know the difference." The horse fights impossible odds to start winning races and that's impressive in the context of horse racing. At the end of the day, it's a horse that runs fast. It runs fast because there's a person on it whipping it. That's horse racing.

And yes, Seabiscuit wants to be something more than "just a horse racing movie." But it's a horse racing movie. The greatest tension the movie achieves is not in the witty dialogue, it is not in the character struggle to admit limitations and overcome them, it is when the horse is running. And again, it's not terribly exciting if you are not into horse racing. I tend not to watch horse racing; the races always seem too short for me (once upon a time, I was a distance runner). They seem somewhat extravagant and pointless to me. Whoo, horse runs fast in circle! Wow.

In Seabiscuit, the attempt to mitigate the fact that all of the action is building to a horse race is encapsulated in the character of Tick Tock McGlaughlin. McGlaughlin is the announcer at the track and he is responsible for hyping Seabiscuit beforehand and trumpeting the veracity of the feat after the race. And the character's sole point (outside realism) seems to be to get the audience excited about the races by reminding us they are coming up in a way that, apparently, the rest of the training and conversing in the movie do not.

There is not a ton of character development in this movie and at over two hours, I have a problem with that. The character arcs take all the predictable turns one would expect in an underdog story where the viewer is meant to root for those whose luck has been poor of late. Unfortunately, because all of the characters fall along the predicted arcs, it is hard to become invested in any of them. They are types, not individuals here.

That is not to say that the cast does not do the best they can with what they have. I might not like Tick Tock McGlaughlin, but William H. Macy does a great job portraying him. Macy expertly fast-talks and riles up the crowds for the audio presentations of the races and in that, he adds a sense of realism. I can honestly say I've never seen Macy in a role like this before. Similarly, Jeff Bridges does well as Charles Howard, easily conveying the sense of a man with power and influence.

Much of the movie, however, hinges on Chris Cooper as Tom Smith and Toby Maguire as Red Pollard. Cooper gives a good performance with the material he is presented. His character is heavily vested in the training aspect, so Cooper is the one who runs with the jargon and he does so convincingly.

And Toby Maguire does a fine job as Red. Red is down on his luck in some ways, hiding his own weaknesses. Maguire's performance is better upon a second viewing when we know what his true condition is; Maguire's acting gives us all the clues, if only we knew to look for them. When he is presented as a well-rounded character, Maguire does a good job on selling us on it. However, with the male libidos and the competitive nature of the story, Maguire also spends time in the movie giving pretty standard jibes at other characters in a way that makes the character seem like a type. Still, Toby Maguire sells us on even these limitations.

Finally, Seabiscuit is well-shot. Director Gary Ross (who also wrote the screenplay) has a good eye for movement and he takes some time establishing shots with the scenery quite well. The movie looks good.

Ultimately, it's not enough, though. In the end, this is a horse racing movie and while the events of the time might have made this impressive, in larger-than-life, big-screen, bright color moving fast movie, it's just not terribly incredible. It did not inspire me to look up footage of the actual horse races, though with the poorly developed characters, it makes me wish I had done that instead.

For other sports movies, check out my reviews of:
Chariots Of Fire


Check out how this film stacks up against others I have reviewed by visiting my Movie Review Index Page where the films are organized from best to worst!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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