In 2002, an underdog American-born Irish racehorse jockeyed by a rider grieving for the death of a close relative won Australia’s Melbourne Cup, “the world’s richest handicap race.” And if you think, on first blush, that would make for an riveting movie, you might be right.
But Simon Wincer, who gained fame worldwide for another movie about a legendary race horse in Australia, Phar Lap, proceded to make a film so devoid of conflict or interesting characters or performances that it plays like background footage in a better horse racing film.
And if you don’t know horses, horse racing and aren’t from Australia, Wincer never gives you a moment to care what happens in “The Cup.” Dull? You don’t know from dull.
The film opens grainy old newsreel footage of the historic race, and with Mark Twain’s glowing description of “the race that stops the nation.” It introduces the racing Oliver brothers, Damien (Stephen Curry) and older brother Jason (Daniel MacPherson). As sibling rivalries go, this one isn’t exactly Cain and Abel.
A trainer, Dermot Weld (Brendan Gleeson) is bringing two Irish horses down for a shot at The Melbourne Cup. And Dermot Weld is not to be taken lightly.
“The wrath of God is nothing to when Dermot is aroused,” one character quakes.
But this may be the most colorless performance of the Great Gleeson’s career. He has no one to set off sparks with. The horses’ owner, like the horse-fancying sheik who is their biggest rival, barely registers as a character.
The horses aren’t exactly stand-out performers either. Pretty enough, but in the best horse films, from “The Black Stallion” to “Seabiscuit,” the horses are given personalities.
The drama here comes from the Oliver family’s burden, a family of jockeys going back three generations, they’ve paid the price for that dangerous line of work.
Damien says, “We know it’s dangerous. It’s part of it.” Which is what passes for gritty dialogue here.
Wincer, working with co-writer Eric O’Keefe, who wrote the non-fiction best seller about this famous race, might have made more of the native Australian backlash against their jockeys riding foreign horses. He tosses seemingly random scenes in showing the Olivers enjoying Australian rules football. Apparently, they made more sense when a deleted scene, bringing in the 2002 terror bombing in Bali, was in the film.
The Aussie Wincer (“Free Willy,” “Lonesome Dove”) makes sure the film is peppered with Aussie slang and Australian place-names and peopled with Australian cameos, utterly lost on most of us.
But “The Cup” only comes together once, in its finale. And a great finish doesn’t make up for the 80 watered down minutes that precede it.
MPAA Rating: unrated, worthy of a PG.
Cast: Stephen Curry, Brendan Gleenson, Daniel MacPherson, Jodi Gordon
Credits: Directed by Simon Wincer, written by Simon Wincer and Eric O’Keefe. A Myriad Picures/Siver Lion/Roadshow release.
Running time: 1:38