Macular Mike wanted to watch something on the new widescreen. I had the remote and was still riffing on The School of Life (2017) when a brainwave hit. What better way to follow up the sweet story of a youth experiencing life through encounters with kindly old folk than the Michael Caine, Robert Duvall and Haley Joel Osment classic of ’03: Secondhand Lions. It’s a heartwarming, family-friendly tale of a youth experiencing life through encounters with kindly old folk. On a big old American farm; with African wildlife.
Walter – the youth in question – is played by young Osment, stretched a good three feet by his hormones since The Sixth Sense (1999) and hot-footing across from his career high as Mowgli in The Jungle Book 2: Mowgli’s Revenge (okay, Mowgli’s Reunion – Disney’s straight-to-VHS team really lost their marketing mojo in ’03). He does a sterling if slightly strange job of looking awkward, tearful, enthused and yet utterly blank-faced throughout. Life isn’t fair, as he is stacked against his movie (great-)uncles: Robert Duvall as the intense, growly Hub and Michael Caine as the completely still and occasionally twinkly Garth. And they are pulling a complete masterclass in movie charm: gun-toting, story-weaving, not quite believable but ultimately kindly and brilliant uncles. What kid could want for more?
Young Walter is dumped by his Mum, Mae (Kyra Sedgwick, whose lies and slender scheming tripped through Macular Mike’s peripheral vision like a siren calling to half-blind sailors. There was grunting). She’s a monumental fibber, pretends she’s off to get a real job, instead debunking to Las Vegas in search of an awful man. She succeeds, but not before Walter has spent several teary-eyed moments contemplating the betrayal. What he needs is two crazy old men to distract him. Or to grow the fuck up.
The movie elects to go with the magnificent uncles. They buy a giraffe. They buy a, well, secondhand lion. They shoot at salesmen and tell mighty stories of their youth that may or may not be true. Rumour is they’re old bank robbers, but rumour isn’t up to the challenge of a well-told tale… Caine’s Garth does most of the telling. There are Arab sheiks. Sword fights. Intoxicatingly beautiful adventures. A soulmate of incomparable loveliness. Hub – with his hand round the throat of a threatening teenager who dares to ask who he is – tells it more poetically:
“I’m Hub McCann. I’ve fought in two World Wars and countless smaller ones on three continents. I led thousands of men into battle with everything from horses and swords to artillery and tanks. I’ve seen the headwaters of the Nile, and tribes of natives no white man had ever seen before. I’ve won and lost a dozen fortunes, killed many men… And loved only one woman, with a passion a flea like you could never begin to understand. That’s who I am. Now go home, boy!”
And therein lies the beauty of this film. For all the old movie stars seem to be relaxing and taking easy money, they know how to weave magic and do so. Like the stories they tell, you never quite believe what you’re watching (Caine’s accent is a special thing), but the stories matter. The fantasies are important. They are more important than dull, empty, achingly painful reality. And who knows…
Here’s a thought for real life and old age: wrap up your past for your grandkids in magic. Sneak the lessons into their heads with a touch of chaotic entertainment. Macular Mike got teary when I imparted this thought: his grand-daughter was on the way for the usual agonisingly boring visit. So he took her to the market and picked a fight with a Morris dancer. To hear him tell it, the Morris dancer lost a limb and his grand-daughter loved him all the more. Mike certainly seemed to have some cuts on his shin from tiny little bells.
Secondhand Lions gives the old their due and teaches Walter to choose to believe in things. I wasn’t in a cynical mood when we watched it, so, yeah, it’s a heartening little moral and played so skilfully I hobbled out to Lily on Reception and told her some roaring fibs about my time in the Crimea. She’s only got GCSEs, so she doesn’t know…but she chose to believe.
Amazon Prime, ahoy.