Film Review – The Cup
Horse racing seems to have developed into a film genre unto itself in the last decade. From the highs of Seabiscuit to the moderate success of Secretariat to the failure of Hidalgo, there seems to be something resonating culturally about this topic, particularly with stories that are based on true events. This year, we have a new entry into the field, with the release of The Cup.
Also based on a true story, the film follows brothers Damien (Stephen Curry) and Jason Oliver (Daniel MacPherson), who have grown up in a long line of successfully horse racers. Despite his father dying in a horse racing accident, Damien has become the most successful rider in Australia. He agrees to ride the longshot horse Media Puzzle, from foreign trainer Dermot Weld (Brendan Gleeson), in Australia’s biggest race, the Melbourne Cup. After his brother tragically dies, Damien must decide if he has the desire to continue and compete in the race.
I love movies that teach me something, which is probably one reason why I love documentaries. For films like Seabiscuit and Secretariat, I didn’t know a lot of the details, but I had a general idea about the story before going into it. The Cup was totally the opposite; I had never heard of the race or the racers, so it was all new to me. Maybe it is one of those ethnocentric problems that I didn’t know about it (like that worldwide love of soccer that has been slow to grow here in the U.S.), but this race is a big deal. They literally refer to it as “the race that stops a nation”…if you can imagine the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stake all rolled into one, there you have it. Apparently horse racing is a big deal Down Under.
That sounds pretty cool…and that is the problem with the movie. I became more fascinated by the backstory of the race than I was with the actual plot that was unfolding. For a story about horse racing, the horses really don’t play a major role. The horse appears from time to time, and characters make some veiled references to its backstory, but really it is much ado about nothing. If you think about Seabiscuit, the horse was a central character, and one of the most beautiful parts of film was watching Red Pollard and Seabiscuit heal from their injuries together. That doesn’t exist at all here, as Damien Oliver doesn’t even really know the horse. We hear Media Puzzle is coming back from an injury, but we never really get much sense of who the horse is or the journey that it had to take. And it is a bit of a shame that they didn’t use horses more, because the racing scenes are beautifully shot and one of the best parts of the movie.
Forgetting about the horses for a moment, there is still a fair amount of drama in the film, but it is some of the most positive drama you could ask for. There is no villain per se…just those tragedies that arise in life, or bad luck. Everyone is very supportive and helpful to each other; it feels like there is a strong camaraderie amongst all of the characters—as if it’s not really a competition. This is the same problem I had with Captain America: The First Avenger: while there were challenges, I never thought greater things were really at stake; the film pretty much cruises through to the end. This is only exacerbated by the overbearing score. Every time an emotion is exposed, the score picks right up and tells you how to feel. There are also all sorts of side plots that are raised but not really explored, such as Dermot Weld’s rivalry with Sheikh Mohammed and the rising foreign presence in the Melbourne Cup.
All of this could’ve been compensated for if the human story was good enough, but that has its own challenges. Stephen Curry feels a bit wooden in his role, which is balanced nicely by Daniel MacPherson as his brother. But as the story focuses more on Curry, it begins to grind a little bit. Also, it feels like Brendan Gleeson is criminally underused in this movie. Much like with Media Puzzle, there are all sorts of allusions made to the history of his character—but in the movie he is like Jeff Bridges in Seabiscuit without all the complexity…basically just a singularly positive spirit. To have someone who is as gifted of an actor as him in that role feels like a waste.
For the most part, the film felt like a “movie of the week.” I would’ve been more disappointed with it if it hadn’t been for the backstory—at least I can get some internet browsing fodder out of that. This film isn’t the worst filly in the race, but it isn’t going to win any awards, either.
Final Grade: C