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In the final film, the actual conflict is all but nonexistent. Penny's incursion into the Boys Club is deferential, nonthreatening, matronly and reassuring - the defanged, powered-down Sarah Palin version of feminism. The Mean Old Men grouse, but come around - only the sleazy, vaguely-ethnic owner of Secretariat's rival horse is a Bad Guy. The bigger picture of the world outside horseracing doesn't seem to exist other than a played-for-laughs subplot about Chenery's daughter putting on a cheesy looking anti-war play - "Don't worry, mom and dad - Liberalism is just some youthful-silliness, they'll outgrow it!" The family tension somehow resolves itself offscreen - Dad shows up all smiles for the Big Race, and the fact that it actually didn't work out never comes up.

Oh, and it goes without saying that the complaints of Penny's husband are strictly about family-friendly neglect - he's annoyed that she's not home to make dinner or watch the kids, but there's not even a hint of any more, er... "physical" needs he might be feeling denied. Of course not: She's The Virgin Mary - beautiful (after all, it's Diane Lane) but also incandescently sexless. How else would we know she's a good woman, after all? It also helps sidestep the somewhat-hilarious subtext, in that we're essentially watching a - chaste - love triangle between a man, a woman and her horse.

That somewhat drops completely, incidentally, during what can only honestly be called the film's love scene, in which Maiden and Steed share a lingering, wordless, psychic gaze. That sort of thing is cute when it's a little kid with the horse, i.e. Dakota Fanning in Dreamer; but here, with a decidedly grown up woman, it's hard for the mind not to step over the line into creepier, more parody-worthy territory. Or, rather, it'll be hard for you now that I've put the idea in your head - mwah ha ha ha!

The result of all this isn't, I stress, that the film is bad. It's watchable, breezy, and nowhere near as vile as the noxious Blind Side (though the less said about how the film regards it's one black character, the better.) It's very pretty, well-acted and photographed, but it just can't shake off the fact that there's nothing to invest in - there's not even much point in rooting for the horse to win, because the stakes are nothing but Penny's vaguely-defined pride. She's already living a comfortable life before the horse story even comes into play, and she's not in danger of being destitute if the farm goes under, so all that's riding on the Big Race is whether our heroes will exit the film merely rich or even richer. Who cares?

In other words, it's lightweight. Impactless. Forgettable. The cinematic equivalent of cotton candy, right down to the palpable nostalgia for a simpler time and the dubious nutritional value. It's a perfect example of how easily you can sacrifice making a good movie by trying to instead make a "safe" one - or by pandering to a market that it just isn't a proper fit for. Future filmmakers would be wise to study it, but only as a handsomely-shot list of "don't"s.

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you've heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.

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