In the days following a tragic loss, famed Australian jockey Damien Oliver (Stephen Curry) struggles to prepare for the 2002 Melbourne Cup.
The Cup may very well be the nadir of inspirational sports movie. It follows the standard path of taking real-life events and turning them into a saccharine festival of clichés, but it goes one better (or is it worse?) and doesn’t even attempt to generate any artificial tension or conflict. You know the main character is going to triumph at the end (and not just because the events depicted here occurred a decade ago and can therefore easily be researched and read about), but the movie (co-written and directed by Simon Wincer, who really needs to stick to television) doesn’t even bother to attempt to make you think otherwise. Given just how obvious this thing is, titling it Damien Oliver Wins the 2002 Melbourne Cup would have in no way been a spoiler.
Here’s the gist of the story: Oliver and his older brother are jockeys. Oliver has recently entered into a partnership with an Irish trainer named Dermot Weld (played here by Brendan Gleeson, who single-handedly saves the movie from being a complete disaster [although it’s still a close call]), who has dragged one of his champion thoroughbreds halfway ‘round the world for the 2002 Melbourne Cup. Oliver’s brother is killed in an accident just days before the running. Oliver and his family are devastated, and their sorrow is compounded by the fact that the accident is similar to the one that claimed Oliver’s father’s life back in the early ‘70s. Oliver chooses not to back out of the race, but the races he runs in the days leading up to the big event all end in defeat. But he soldiers on, and he eventually wins the Cup.
Before you go accusing me of ruining the movie (which has reportedly been sitting on the shelf for the better part of five years), know this: much of the plot is spelled out in the summary on the back of the packaging. So if you’re planning on taking a jaunt back in time and placing a bet on the outcome of the race, all you need to do is read the three-sentence summary the marketing team came up with; watching the entire movie isn’t required. It’s also not required for anyone who isn’t planning on going back in time, because no one should watch this movie. I don’t care if you love true-life sports flicks the way dogs love trees, or the way Adam Sandler loves making suckers out of his fans. There’s nothing to make The Cup worth your time.
The combination of poorly utilized clichés (it’s sad when a cliché movie can’t even get the clichés right) and lack of anything that resembles doubt with respect to every turn of the plot is what ultimately kills this movie, but there’s another big problem: you never get a sense of why this particular race matters so much to the people of Ireland and Australia. Weld is shown retuning home to Ireland in one scene, and he’s met by a throng of reporters so big and noisy it makes the swarm of press that greets Lindsay Lohan every time she wrecks her car look like, to paraphrase Sheriff Buford T. Justice, baby crap. And from evidence presented here, it appears the entire country of Australia shuts down the day the race is held. People are shown gathered around televisions and radios, hanging on the race announcers’ every word. It’s like the Super Bowl, the moon landing, the last episode of M*A*S*H, and the reveal of who shot J.R. all rolled into one. But what’s the big deal? The movie doesn’t bother to show us, so we have no reason to care.
As is often the case with this sort of flick, footage of the real-life individuals being portrayed is employed right before the end credits begin to roll. Weld is glimpsed briefly, and there’s a minute or two of news footage of Oliver’s win and subsequent speech to the crowd. As is (again) often the case, there’s more genuine emotion in these short snippets than in everything that precedes them. Oliver looking upward and speaking to his late brother gives rise to the sort of natural emotional response the filmmakers lazily try--and fail--to create via artificial, obvious means. Surprise, surprise.
The 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer captures the movie’s sepia-toned visuals quite well. Although the story being told here occurred only a decade ago, Wincer and cinematographer David Burr opted to for a look that is meant to be warm and nostalgic. This results in practically everything and everyone having something of a gold-tinged look, but it doesn’t compromise the image in any way. A pretty solid presentation overall, flawed only by the usual suspects (some mild moiré and aliasing, a bit of edge unnecessary enhancement).
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track isn’t given a whole lot to do; for a movie about guys riding around on animals that can weigh up to half a ton, the mix here is surprisingly staid. To be fair, there isn’t a whole lot of actual racing action (just a handful of rather brief scenes), but what little there is seriously underutilizes the soundfield, with only the final race bringing the surrounds into play (which is the only time the surrounds ever come into play). Dialogue sounds okay, and the overbearing, syrupy score sounds good (relatively speaking, of course). There’s a bit of good low-end action, but not enough. An English Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks included; English and Spanish subtitles are available.
Making The Cup (42 minutes) is a fairly lengthy, fairly in-depth behind-the-scenes piece, but it suffers from a tone that’s too promotional and congratulatory.
It’s the same old story, the same old song and dance. Read a book on the subject instead.