Picks and Pans Review: Seabiscuit

updated 08/04/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/04/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper
Critic's Choice

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In 1937 Paul Howard, a millionaire Buick dealer, spent $2,000—a bargain-basement price even then—to purchase Seabiscuit, a puny, ill-tempered 3-year-old racehorse who showed talent mostly for eating and sleeping. Howard's gamble paid off big. With a little loving care the bay started whipping bigger, better-rated rivals, and his exploits soon helped lift the spirit of a nation still mired in the Great Depression.

This inspirational tale of the little horse that could is told in Seabiscuit, a good movie straining to be a great one. One is always aware that director-writer Gary Ross (Pleasantville) isn't looking merely to place. Like the 2001 nonfiction bestseller by Laura Hillenbrand on which it is based, Seabiscuit focuses as much on the trio of psychologically bruised men behind the Thoroughbred's success—owner Howard (Bridges), trainer Tom Smith (Cooper) and jockey Johnny "Red" Pollard (Maguire; see page 93)—and the hard times they lived in as on its four—legged hero. Seabiscuit is about second chances—for horses, people or a nation. "You don't throw a whole life away just 'cause it's banged up a little," says Smith. Point taken. But it is hammered home so often, and so obviously, one begins to wonder if a pop quiz will be administered at the theater exit.

There's no faulting the acting or the vivid racing scenes (who knew jockeys conversed while heading down the stretch?). Bridges is all can-do American bluster, Cooper out-flints flint, and Maguire credibly shows an embittered man softening up. They help make this an enormously enjoyable movie but one that, in a way Seabiscuit himself never did, comes up a little short. (PG-13)

BOTTOM LINE: Makes the winner's circle, but the effort shows

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