By Joe Lozito
"You don't throw away a whole life just because it has a few bumps." That is only one of the many sound-bite-ready platitudes spouted by Tom Smith, trainer of the legendary racehorse Seabiscuit. Whether the real life Smith was so prone to saying things like "He just needs to learn how to be a horse again" or "Every horse is good for somethin'" is one of the many questions the film "Seabiscuit" leaves unanswered. As played with a frustrating quietude by Chris Cooper, the Smith character illustrates everything that's right and wrong about Gary Ross' adaptation of the Laura Hillenbrand novel: he plays the role beautifully, but you're dying to see him loosen up.
Still, I admired "Seabiscuit" for the way it took its time to weave the stories of four men: Smith, the Obi-wan of trainers; Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges, replaying his "Tucker" role as he ages gracefully into his father) a self-made something-or-other with a penchant for horses; Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire, giving yet another intense performance but still finding time for his now-trademark "woohoo!"), the jockey who must learn not to ride angry; and of course the titular colt who would become the Cinderella story of the racing circuit and, according to some tacked on voice-overs, unite a Depression Era America.
The cast is in top form across the board and the film looks beautiful throughout. The script is well-crafted and Mr. Ross, as writer and director, keeps the film's pace going at a brisk gallop even for an extended epilogue after "the big race". The racing scenes themselves are exciting, of course, with Mr. Ross' camera seemingly able to drift in and around the action at a whim. But, like "Road to Perdition", this is a beautiful film with little emotion. All the pieces are in place, but the film never equals more than the sum of its parts. Little is at stake during the racing scenes, but Randy Newman's bombastic score tells us when to care with obvious flourishes.
We root for Seabiscuit, of course, but more out of obligation than devotion - after all, we paid to see him. The few moments of humor in the film give a glimpse of what could have been if Mr. Ross had loosened the reins a bit. But, to paraphrase a certain portentous trainer, "you don't throw away a whole movie just because it has a few bumps."