And the winner is... Driving Miss Daisy!? A quick flashback to the 1989 Oscars there, when the none-more-MOR Morgan Freeman pootler swiped the Best Picture baldie from, ooh, let's see, Born On The Fourth Of July, My Left Foot, Field Of Dreams and Dead Poets Society. That was the year when the Academy decided that bland was best, that schmaltz ruled and that, no matter how workmanlike the execution, blatant sentimentality was the winning formula.
Of course, it was neither the first nor last time that happened, and while we're a way off from knowing what next year's contenders will be, it's looking likely that Seabiscuit is a (horse)shoe-in for a shot at Oscar gold. Now guess which of the 1989 nominees it most resembles...
Opening with a drifting montage of black-and-white stills depicting Model T Fords trundling off assembly lines (American innovation! A New Era!), while a throaty, down-at-home Waltons reject patronisingly delivers a history lecture on, er, American innovation and the birth of a new era, it's instantly clear that Seabiscuit isn't going to push any boundaries. Writer/director Gary Ross isn't out to impress us with visual effects or dynamic editing; he isn't trying to challenge our perception of the world, or entwine us in a twisted, multi-strand drama. He's simply out to tell the story of how a wonky-limbed nag became a towering icon for Depression-era America.
Nothing wrong with that. What is wrong, however, is Ross' storytelling method. The photo-montages and voiceover grate right from the off. Even worse is his decision to slap Mr Walton's-voice Man's blahs over one of the key scenes, like when ageing cowboy trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) first encounters the eponymous gee-gee. Surely a thesp of Cooper's calibre is capable of acting his sudden connection with our unlikely, fetlocked hero? Surely the audience is smart enough to see what's going on? Ross doesn't think so.
It's all so mechanical - - from the cheesy script to the syrupy cinematography to the unexciting race scenes to the tedious symbolism. Smith, for example, represents THE END OF AN ERA. Millionaire car-manufacturer/horse-owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) represents THE NEW AMERICA; he's also tragically LOST HIS SON. Spunky jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) has LOST HIS FATHER; he's also a very ANGRY YOUNG MAN. Seabiscuit, of course, is a very ANGRY YOUNG HORSE... Not surprising, then, that every plot development comes signposted half-an-hour previously, especially when you consider that this is an all-American tale of how THE LITTLE GUY won against ALL THE ODDS.
An amusing turn from William H Macy and a trio of impressive central performances go some way to soothing your irritation, while there's no denying that Seabiscuit's astonishing rise to fame is an interesting story. But anyone who likes a bit of spice in their cinema is guaranteed to leave the 'plex unimpressed and untouched.