Though flawed as a long-form drama, David Milch and Michael Mann’s Luck at least got one thing incontrovertibly right: It nailed the look and feel of the racetrack, making a world of the milieu. Horse races suddenly seemed so anthropological, a cross-section of gamblers and mob men and a weathered Nick Nolte. It wasn’t always great television, but its world always seemed present, alive with activity we could believe in. It should be fairly obvious that Simon Wincer, director of Free Willy and, more recently, something called NASCAR 3D: The IMAX Experience, is no Milch or Mann. Wincer, who also helmed such perennial family favorites as Operation Dumbo Drop and the sequel to Crocodile Dundee, is a sort of master of the unremarkably anodyne, and he brings his knack for vapidity to The Cup, a new Australian drama about horse races that looks and feels nothing like a real one.
Wincer, one gathers, has never met a person who isn’t perpetually nice, and his film is so full of kind-hearted well-wishers that he can’t even make room for an antagonist. The “drama” here, if it does indeed qualify, revolves around the death of a jockey’s brother just two weeks before the 2002 Melbourne Cup, a bit of bad timing that, once he goes through the motions of grief and dejection and reclaimed courage, inspires him to win the horse race and honor his brother’s memory. The preeminently talented (but apparently hard-up for work) Brendan Gleeson, meanwhile, struggles to make the role of stereotypical manager/mentor-figure look like anything but the cliché it so obviously is, but between his gaudy push-in close-ups and the mawkish platitudes he’s fed by the screenplay, he was clearly fighting a losing battle all along.
One wonders who the audience is for a film this far removed from the dirt and grime of the reality it claims to be based on, and why they find anything so squeaky-clean appealing. Aren’t we all a little too savvy and cynical, after a hundred-plus years of cinema, to be duped by weepy strings and a few shots in slow motion? The Cup is one of those so-called “inspirational true stories,” but who exactly does the film intend to inspire, and what might it intend to inspire them to do? This isn’t the story of a real-life “triumph over adversity,” as its unbearably saccharine surfaces suggest. The world of the film doesn’t really understand adversity. These horses ride in a vacuum, safe from dirt and shit and everything else. There’s no activity there. The Cup just gestures vaguely at something closer to bad TV than to real life. Where’s Milch when you need him?