Rated PG-13, 140 min. Directed by Gary Ross. Narrated by David McCullough. Starring Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Gary Stevens, William H. Macy.
Adapted from the bestselling nonfiction work by Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit dramatizes the story of three men – owner Charles Howard (Bridges), jockey Red Pollard (Maguire), and trainer Tom Smith (Cooper) – and the abandoned, battered horse they rallied around and made a champion. But the horse comes later – first, writer/director Gary Ross fills in back story for his three heroes, awkwardly interweaving their separate threads. Howard makes a fortune in the still-young automobile industry, but is undone by personal loss; Red is pushed out the door while still in his teens when his parents, rocked by the Great Depression, can no longer care for him; and Smith starts as a cowboy, then a circus trainer, and eventually lands in a border town with a reputation as a quack healer of sick horsies. Eventually, the three find each other, but the getting there takes an awful long time. The pace is further slackened with frequent interruptions of archival footage accompanied by voiceover narration (intoned by historian David McCullough with all the flat folksiness of a Discovery Channel special) that attempts to link the Seabiscuit story to the nation’s troubled Thirties and Forties’ coming-of-age. The first half of Seabiscuit, top-heavy with historical context, suffers from a puffed-up sense of profundity – you can almost see it huffing and puffing to be a Very Big Picture; unfortunately, would-be epics often check their sense of humor at the door. Once the titular horse comes galloping in, however, the film, too, quickens its pace – sometimes to breakneck speeds in the frequent, thrilling race scenes. The film also finally cracks a smile: William H. Macy has a terrific extended cameo as a radio announcer named "Tick Tock" McGlaughlin, and newcomer Elizabeth Banks, in a thankless role as Howard’s wife, elbows her way into the boys’ club with charm nonetheless. But the picture belongs to its three contrasting leads: Bridges’ avuncular showman, Maguire’s angry brawler, and Cooper’s taciturn sensei. They’ve all done better work – or, perhaps, more subtle work – but so arm-twistingly inspirational is Ross’ film, you sense the trio had to dial it up eight notches just to be heard over all the stumping. Maguire gets top billing, but his dark hero takes a backseat to Bridges’: Maguire’s Red may be searching for a father figure, but more importantly (at least to Ross), Bridges’ Howard is looking for a son. It’s a shame, really, that Maguire gets less screentime; his bloodshoot, hanging-by-a-nail portrayal of Red – a jockey too big and too tall for the business, he must starve and vomit prerace – digs at something meatier under Ross’ pretty hokum. But enough with the potshots at Ross, whose first and only other film was the tender, funny, feather-light-on-its-feet Pleasantville. Seabiscuit begs for some of that film’s levity, but it still entertains. Taking a cue from the horse in question, Ross’ film takes its time getting into the race, but once it gets going, the going gets good.
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