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Gentle ‘Lions’ an engaging romp

Duvall and Caine play two ornery brothers
/ Source: contributor

“Secondhand Lions” has a few almost first-rate pleasures. Mainly, the chance to see Robert Duvall and Michael Caine being old and cute together, which is more amusing than, say, Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster in “Tough Guys.”

Writer and director Tim McCanlies lets Caine (now 70) and Duvall (72) cut loose in a fairly restrained, engaging way. They are brothers Garth (Caine) and Hub (Duvall), rascal adventurers retired back to Texas in the early 1960s, living in a gothic farm hulk that looks like an Addams Family variant on the mansion in “Giant.”

You expect the ghost of Sam Houston to rattle the attic, and newly arrived nephew Walter (Haley Joel Osment) is truly spooked for a while. The old bros aren’t happy when relatives visit, least of all Walter’s tumbleweed mother Mae (Kyra Sedgwick), a dingbat and liar who drops the boy with them so she can run off and live stupid.

She’s heard that Hub and Garth have a big stash of money, which is true, but this just sits at the middle of the plot, like a “Treasure Island” element waiting for a sequel. Caring little about the loot, the hurt, lonely boy is busy trying to decipher his uncles, a sort of Pa & Pa Kettle, prone to heavy use of shotguns, and devoted to their five dogs and pet pig.

A lion is dropped off for added rustic diversion, and Walter bonds to it as he starts to win the grumbling, but growing support of Hub and Garth. The lion looks like the last gasp of a dying circus, but is soon frisky in a cornfield that the brothers planted by mistake.

Casting and lush visuals hold together this chummy family fantasy. Caine is all canny reserve and grit as the more sensible coot, his native Cockney mostly masked by a drawl. Duvall snorts and glints his special brand of manly Americana, not at “Open Range” level, but enjoyably; only his acting could pull off the scene of old Hub humbling juvenile delinquents.

McCanlies reaches for size and picaresque charm. The basic yarn is set in the italics of folksy humor (lots of guitar pickin’). This gets amplified by flashbacks to the brothers’ virile youth in a kind of stage-dream North Africa, with florid narration (“High in his opulent bed chamber, the sheik slept”) and pop-eyed Arab villains more like Hope & Crosby road toughs than budding future terrorists.

There are pleasing moments under the storybook stars, and the human stars register well. Osment, the earnest lad from “The Sixth Sense,” is now 15 and a stripling. He seems locked into his own zone of method acting, and in certain shots looks about 40, a budding Omaha insurance grandee deep into Rotary.

Is there a small PC snag here? Hub and Garth are awfully happy to fire live rounds, and in a few moments this entertainment is like a National Rifle Association pitch to the family market. Chuck Heston, bring the grandkids!

We can rely on Caine to be tart but graceful, and on Duvall to deliver crunchy lessons in manly virtue without spilling them into our laps like stale corn. McCanlies shares an expansive fondness for his story and actors, and it would be rather peevish to reject his genial gift.