By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

Saturday night in West Hollywood, the Sports Gal and I caught a 10:45 showing of "Seabiscuit" in the Grove. We arrived early and snagged two premium seats: middle level, first row, with the rail so you can put your feet up. Those are like courtside tickets for an NBA game; everyone even looks jealous when they see you sitting in them. It's the little things in life, isn't it?

So we're waiting for the movie to start, throwing down some Sour Patch Kids and sharing a 256-ounce root beer, when the Sports Gal practically clotheslines me on the side of the head: "It's Tobey Maguire! He's right there! Holding the popcorn! Tobey Maguire! I swear, it's him!"

Sure enough, it was Tobey. All 68 inches of him. Wearing a khaki cap, holding a bucket of popcorn against his face as a disguise, scurrying towards the front rows of the theater before anyone noticed him. Meanwhile, my date was just about hyperventilating. Nobody gets more starstruck.

Tobey Maguire
The racing scenes with Tobey Maguire looked like the real deal.

"That's definitely him, I know it!" she yelped. "And that's his girlfriend with him! I recognize her from Us Weekly! They've been dating for seven months! Her Dad is the chief of Universal Studios!"

I'm telling you this story for a couple of reasons. One, the Sports Gal is clearly insane. Not only does she devour Us Weekly the same way stockbrockers devour the Wall Street Journal, she actually talks while she's reading it; you'll hear 20 seconds of silence, followed by, "Oh, you're too skinny," and then another 30 seconds of page-flipping, followed by, "Yeah, like those are real." She's a lunatic. You need to know this.

Second, crazy things happen when you live in L.A. You're settling down for a weekend showing of "Seabiscuit" ... and there's the star of the movie sitting down 10 rows in front of you. If this happened in Boston, Murph and Sully would barrel over to say hello, force him to sign a few autographs, then spend the next two hours throwing gummy bears at him. Nobody cares in L.A. Kooky place.

And third, seeing Tobey in the theater was probably my favorite part of the movie. I couldn't stop wondering about it. Hadn't he seen about 10 screenings already? Was he curious to hear the reaction of a paying crowd? Was he trying to impress his girlfriend? (And if he was, could you blame him?) Did he have to pay, or did they let him in for free? I was more interested in solving this stuff than watching his movie.

I never came up with any answers, but I did get a lead for this column. Looking back, "Seabiscuit" felt like a Mike Mussina start: Solid, professional, some genuine thought behind it, kept your interest from beginning to end, and that's about it. Of course, compared to the other crap that came out this summer, you'll leave the theater thinking "Seabiscuit" should win about 25 Academy Awards.

And that's the problem here. Now that Hollywood has given up and announced, "We can put out anything and these morons will pay 10 bucks to see it," we invariably appreciate anything that resembles an actual movie, not a budding franchise. Maybe the best part of "Seabiscuit" is that there can't be a "Seabiscuit 2: Full Throttle," or even a "Seabiscuit 2: Stud Farm." It's a throwback to the days when people just cared about making a quality film.

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  • In case you haven't read the book, here's the plot: After the great Depression, the racing exploits of an undersized afterthought (Seabiscuit) captured the nation, his racing career turned around by three people: a millionaire regrouping after a divorce and the death of his son (Charles Howard, played by Jeff Bridges); a grizzled trainer who hit rock-bottom after the Depression (Trainer Guy Tom Smith, played by Chris Cooper); and a fiesty, oversized, half-blind jockey just looking for someone to believe in him (Red Pollard, played by Maguire).

    Now ...

    That sounds pretty simple, right? Took me one paragraph to set the whole movie up. So why did it take writer-director Gary Ross a full 45 minutes to bring the damned horse onto the screen??? Really? Forty-five minutes? Imagine Bob Redford first showing up nearly an hour into "The Natural"? Or Sean Astin not making an appearance until 45 minutes into "Toy Soldiers"?

    I mention this only because "Seabiscuit" clocked in at a whopping two hours and 20 minutes; only half as long as "Bad Boys 2," but ridiculously long nontheless. It should have started 22 minutes into the movie, when the three main characters crossed paths for the first time in Tijuana ... but the filmmakers were obsessed with their sweeping, poetic, "These three men fixed Seabiscuit's career, and in turn, he fixed their lives" angle. It worked for Laura Hillenbrand's impeccably written book, but only because she had 448 pages in paperback to play with. Movies don't work like that. You need to trim the excess fat. At least, you should trim the excess fat.

    So that was one problem: A 140-minute movie that should have been 25 minutes shorter. I also can't stand movies with narrators. It's a personal thing. Nine times out of 10, movies rely on narrators because they can't figure out how to tell the story correctly. Just about every one of my favorite movies avoided a narrator: "The Godfather," "Hoosiers," "Boogie Nights," "Caddyshack," "The Natural," "48 Hours," "Scorned," you name it. Off the top of my head, only three of my favorites -- "Shawshank Redemption," "Rounders" and "A Bronx Tale" -- used one. If the story is good enough, you don't need someone describing what you can already see with your own eyes.

    In the case of "Seabiscuit", ubiquitous historian David McCullough narrates the action, sounding disturbingly like the narrator from Corky's play in "Waiting for Guffman." And the movie became so carried away with the History Channel template -- mixing in scenes with narration and old photographs -- that it screwed up the first part of the legendary mano-a-mano duel between Seabiscuit and War Admiral. For the love of God, how can you screw that up???? That was the only money-in-the-bank scene in the movie. Inexcusable.

    Tobey Maguire
    Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) and Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) discuss strategy.

    Two other problems from my end: There were one too many tidy cliches in the script, groaners like, "I'm lookin' for someone who's not gonna run from a fight" and "He's forgotten what he was born to do ... he just needs to be a horse again." Also, they glossed over Red Pollard's size, which was a crucial part of the book: Red weighed about 130 pounds, nearly 20-25 pounds more than any other jockey. Since Seabiscuit was undersized for a champion, that only added to his legend; he was handicapped by the extra weight in every race. Ross should have played that up.

    On the positive side, the acting was predictably top-notch. Has Jeff Bridges ever been disappointing in anything? Nobody ever talks about him, everyone likes him ... why isn't Bridges a bigger star? This was one of those Tom Hanks parts -- likable guy, high energy, haunted by some demons, comes alive in crowds -- and Bridges knocked it out of the park (sure, he played the exact same character in "Tucker," but that's beside the point). This was my third-favorite Bridges performance, right behind "The Fabulous Baker Boys" and "The Vanishing," and about 200 places ahead of "Eight Million Ways to Die."

    As for Tobey Maguire ... first of all, he dropped something like 25 pounds for "Seabiscuit," with the help of diet consultant Lara Flynn Boyle. Yikes. There should be an Oscar category for actors who lose or gain an absurd amount of weight for a part, if only because it could lead to more goofy acceptance speeches from the completely and utterly insane Renee Zellweger. Who would be against this?

    Anyway, he's terrific in this movie; I can't imagine any other actor playing this part (with the possible exception of Michael J. Fox back in the Marty McFly Era). The racing scenes were especially difficult to pull off, but Maguire makes you feel like he's really coaxing the most out of his horse. After seeing Leo botch that Irish accent in "Gangs of New York," it's safe to say that Maguire has become the most reliably good actor under 30. At least for now. Even Jonathan Lipnicki hasn't been this consistent.

    As for everyone else, longtime "That Guy" turned Oscar winner Chris Cooper acquits himself nicely as the grizzled trainer -- a role that required him to either A) stare at the track in disbelief, or B) stare at his stopwatch in disbelief. I liked real-life jockey Gary Stevens as Red's friendly rival (who ends up riding Biscuit against War Admiral). Bridges' second wife (Elizabeth Banks) was so adorable, I actually wrote the words "fetching" in my notebook. Bill Macy was predictably good as a cartoonish horse racing announcer. And the 10 horses that played Seabiscuit ... I mean, what can you say about them? They were all superb.

    Tobey Maguire
    As the half-blind jockey Red Pollard, Tobey Maguire can tell Leo to move aside for under-30 supremacy.

    That reminds me, I'm not a huge horse guy -- I'm still outraged that Secretariat was included in ESPN's list of Top 50 Athletes of the 20th century, ahead of real people like Sugar Ray Leonard and Paul Mokeski -- but the movie did make me believe that there was something unique and cerebral about Seabiscuit ... at least for four or five hours, before I remembered that horses have grape-sized brains and take dumps no matter where they're standing.

    Here's what really stood out: The racing scenes. They were so good that I found myself wondering one or two times, "Wait a second, how the hell did they film this?" There wasn't a split-second of film that looked fake or contrived. I even got the chills three times -- Seabiscuit's first win, Seabiscuit racing War Admiral, and the enjoyable ending (which worked exceptionally well). Always nice to leave the theater on a high note.

    Speaking of chill scenes, that brings us to the most important question: Was "Seabiscuit" good enough to warrant inclusion in my hallowed "Best 30 Sports Movies Ever" list?

    You could probably figure out the answer by now -- I thought it fell short, because of its length, because of the cliches, because it tried to do too much, and because it needed those two or three extra goosebump scenes that separate the good movies from the great ones. Like Rocky waking Adrian up and telling her that he can't beat Creed, but if he can just go the distance, he won't be a loser any more. Or Roy Hobbs' manager telling him that Roy was the best player he ever had, and the best hitter he'd ever seen. Or even the chef in "Vision Quest" telling Louden Swain about the time Pele brought him to tears.

    The three characters in Seabiscuit never clicked like that; they seemed like three ships passing in the night. Where was the scene where Tobey can't sleep, so he goes down to feed Seabiscuit, but Chris Cooper's already down there, and they share a laugh, and then Cooper launches into the "I spent my whole life waiting for a horse like this" speech? Or the scene where everyone's riding on a train, and Tobey can't resist the urge to knock on Jeff Bridges's door and thank him for everything, and they end up splitting a bottle of whiskey and telling a couple stories? Give me these things over some Depression photographs and a corny narrator any time.

    So here's my final verdict ...

    Good movie. Flawed movie, long movie ... but a solid movie. Fun for the whole family. Thrown into the current group of summer releases, it's a great movie. It's the same phenomenon that takes hold in press boxes when there's a cute female reporter at a baseball game. Maybe she isn't anything to write home about, but surrounded by a bunch of 350-pounders and geeky guys with bad skin, she suddenly transforms into Miss America. Same with "Seabiscuit."

    And just for the record, I would have loved to tell Tobey Maguire these things, but he sprinted out of the theater in the two-second window between "fade to black" and "roll closing credits." Maybe he wanted to beat the crowd. Maybe he had to take a Seabiscuit. Maybe he didn't want to be recognized. Whatever the case, it was just another night in Los Angeles, the strangest place on earth.

    Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine, and he's a writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live.