Written by Faith Conroy and Jim Wilson
Directed by Jim Wilson
Imagine, if you will, a horse race that starts and finishes in a blink of an eye. We see your choice winner bucking behind the starting gate. His chances of winning are slim to none, fifty to one in fact. You may not know anything about the horse, but you like the sound of his name on the program, and figure you can make some nice cash from a long shot. The gate opens and your horse bellows out the door. Immediately cut to the first bend and he is trailing behind the team. Now, immediately cut to the last and he strides to the finish line by a large margin. Victory is yours, but to what fulfillment? Sure you’re happy that your horse won, and heck, you might have made a serious winning. You probably aren’t thinking about the horse’s underdog story, his unlikely chances of getting into that winner’s circle. For you, it was just a great race. Nothing more. And for Jim Wilson’s 50 to 1, the same sentiment can be shared. The final scenes, which take no more than five minutes of the film’s runtime at best, are good and heartfelt, but cannot makeup for the schlock of its prior one hundred and five minutes. In that regard, the film can simply be called 105 to 5 Minutes and save the audience a huge waste of time.
Harshness aside, the weakness of the film solely rests on its earnestness. 50 to 1 lacks it completely, especially within the setup of its first two acts. Like a thoroughbred, the film stampedes to the finish line. Instead of a slow buildup, cementing relationships and raising tension to a story of which we already know the outcome, what we get is a series of snapshots buckling the plot along. Opening with a bar fight, Chip Woolley (Skeet Ulrich) and Mark Allen (Christian Kane) hit it off in a typical macho bromance. Cut to ten years later, and the bankrupted Woolley happens to see the well-off Allen on TV and pays him a visit. They immediately recognize and click again with each other, and the rest haphazardly falls into place from there. Ultimately, as the story clumsily whips along, the audience is forced to question the integrity of the film’s backstory. We see Woolley down on his luck, yet we never see him hit rock bottom. We see Allen’s success, traveling across country in his private jet, yet how he made his millions is debatable. He is a partier, womanizer, and steers clear of plain rational. Although Christian Kane does a fine job in creating a charming and charismatic portrayal of the cowboy horse owner, Wilson’s direction of Allen comes across as moronic. In a scene where Allen instructs Woolley to travel and see if Mind That Bird is worth buying, despite Woolley’s apprehension, Allen purchases the horse on a whim. This contrast in exposition cheapens the script, adding holes to the pages in multiple points of the film. From the purchase of Mind That Bird to even his qualifications getting into the Kentucky Derby, it seems as thought scenes play as mindless filler than anchored plot points.
50 to 1 is based on the 2009 underdog story of Mind That Bird’s claim to fame at the Kentucky Derby, with his group of misfit cowboy owners. Being an inspired true story, the mere fact that the ending is known, plays to the film’s discredit. With the outcome exposed, a film must rely on strong character relationships and drama. 50 to 1 falls short on both fronts. Films like Captain Phillips or Zero Dark Thirty do a fantastic job in suspending the audience’s belief of the ending, by heightening stakes and tension filled setup throughout the film’s progression. Sure a horserace isn’t as detrimental as a vessel hijacking or assassination military mission, but the balance between hope and failure can prove to be quite gripping. It’ll be easy for audiences to compare 50-1 to Seabiscuit given the context, but what makes Seabiscuit excel is its dedication to setup. We see the struggle of the jockey played by a troubled Tobey Maguire. We see the temperament of Seabiscuit, as he wins and loses races. That balance is always tittering and can break at any given point. Yet with 50-1, that struggle isn’t apparent because it’s not there. Wilson’s only concern is getting the audience to the Derby, even using actual footage to establish the solo importance of the big day. What Wilson doesn’t understand, a staple for all true stories, is that the journey is more important than the destination, because the destination is already discovered.
Notorious for his work as a producer in huge hits like Dances With Wolves and The Bodyguard, Jim Wilson has struggled with smaller budgets in more recent years. Even working with long time collaborator Kevin Costner on 2008’s Swing Vote, proved mediocre by breaking even at the box office. The problem lies in budget. A few filmmakers only work best with a bigger multi-million dollar budget. Francis Ford Coppola, like Jim Wilson, is one of those directors. 2011’s flop, Twixt, is a similar high concept idea gone array. When a writer (Val Kilmer) goes to a small town for his book tour, he finds himself involved in a murder with a young girl. Sounds good on paper, right? Not so much.
With an ultra low budget of seven million dollars, not even an audacious Val Vilmer and smarmy Bruce Dern can save the film’s poor visual effects and contrived script. High concepts do not mix well with a micro budget, unless when practical effects undermine a stellar script. This is why superhero films have national debt level budgets, and filmmakers like Wes Anderson aren’t touching them with fifty-foot poles. A more comparable analogy and success story can be seen with Disney’s Secretariat. With a budget of 30 million dollars, Diane Lane’s story of housewife turned champion horse owner, nearly doubled earnings during its 2010 theatrical run. Even without speculation of whether budgets could have salvaged the disappointment of 50 to 1, the proof is already in the pavement. When push comes to shove, 50 to 1 may conjure up tears and tug on a few heartstrings. Yet when all is set and done, when the credits have ended and you are walking back to your car, ask yourself one question: Was the journey worth it?