The crowd-pleaser walks a fine, inescapable line between uplift and shameless maudlinism. Cynicism is pervasive, yet unapologetically sentimental films such as Rocky and Forrest Gump periodically magnetize the multitudes. The story of the underdog who defies the odds is as timeless as it is transparent. Rudimentary emotions, despite their apparent simplicity, can be ineffably potent.
Seabiscuit, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s beloved best seller and directed with steadfast earnestness by the yeoman-like Gary Ross, is heavy-handed and curiously unmoving. Elephantine dedication and meticulousness hardly guarantee the visceral investment that is so integral to inspirational films. Ross’s pursuit of superlative craftsmanship prevents him from forming a deep connection with the picture’s viewers. The Hot Button’s David Poland shares a similar opinion: “The ...view middle of the document...
Seabiscuit, the diminutive, Depression-era horse, inspired a nation and drastically altered the lives of bereft, self-made millionaire and owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), gloomy trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), and the pugnacious, half-blind jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire). This true story is meant to be emblematic of America’s recuperative powers and “never say die” attitude; however, the three central characterizations are so sketchy and flimsy that audience immersion in their plight and eventual redemption is an act of good will. Bridges, while clearly relishing his role, is reduced to playing a tiresome idealist inclined to giving hackneyed speeches. The death of his young son, a key event, is handled so expeditiously that it becomes trifling. Recent Oscar winner Cooper, portraying an aging cowboy during a period when cowboys were nearing extinction, gives a surprisingly perfunctory performance, although the part is admittedly anemic. Smith’s potential to be compellingly wistful is of no importance to Ross, whose obsession with surface gloss prohibits the creation of meaningful, engrossing characters. Maguire, at his best playing troubled youths in dark, incisive pictures like The Ice Storm and Wonder Boys, is unconvincing as Pollard. He lacks the edge and vigor required to communicate the jockey’s hostility and confusion and has never been very adept at externalizing his emotions.
Seabiscuit is an exercise in self-indulgent conviction. Ross, undoubtedly a gifted filmmaker, is more interested in gratifying his directorial impulses than in concocting an inspirational film to enrapture the masses. Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers disagrees: “Ross restores the good name of crowd-pleasing. Hipsters will be allergic; this one is for your inner sap.” The story takes a backseat to Ross’s laborious direction. Cold precision can’t conceal narrative impotency. His quest for artistic prowess ultimately obstructs his ability to spin a good yarn.