Review: The Boys are Back
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
In the right hands, movies about families in crisis-aftermath mode can be breeding grounds for captivating drama. There are countless examples of such, but the one I'll cite is last year's “Rachel Getting Married,” in which director Jonathan Demme found the harmonic heartbeat of a dysfunctional, emotionally-bruised brood and exposed their highs, lows and secrets with an organic, warts-and-all vitality. Though admittedly aiming for a slightly lighter tone, “The Boys are Back,” an Australian film about an oft-absent father who must buck up and embrace the challenges of single parenthood after his wife's sudden death, slips up considerably in this regard. There are no great truths revealed, no real profound lessons learned, and the meat of the story is rather flavorless. Therein lies the biggest problem: this movie isn't bad, or even boring, per say, just hopelessly bland.
One of the many elements that director Scott Hicks insists we soak up and then basically hangs out to dry is the literally messy, female-free living conditions of the father and his two sons, who inhabit a pigsty of a house in the Australian countryside that feels and is treated more like an elaborate, carefully cluttered set than an actual, increasingly yuck-ified man-cave (or “hog heaven,” as it is affectionately called). “The Boys are Back” could use more mess, in forms both literal and beyond, to spice it up.
The father is Joe Warr (Clive Owen), a hotshot sports writer who travels the world to report on the greatness of all-star athletes like Michael Phelps and the Williams sisters. When wielding his laptop in press boxes at major events, Joe is an ace, churning out his witty copy with the lickety-split speed of the pros he profiles. At home, however, Joe's stats are sub-par. Years ago, after his first marriage failed, he abandoned his son, Harry, in London, thinking it best that the boy stay with his mother. It was about that time when Joe met Katy (Laura Fraser), who he married and with whom he moved to Australia and had another boy, Artie, who Joe rarely sees given his hectic schedule. After Katy unexpectedly and rapidly falls ill and dies from a wicked form of cancer, Joe decides to hone his parenting skills his way: by loosening the leash and cutting back on rules. He lets six-year-old Artie (Nicholas McAnulty) do cannonballs in bathtubs and ride on the hood of an SUV. Eventually, at the request of his mother, the now-teenage Harry (Rupert Grint clone George MacKay), who carries grievances to match the other males' grief, flies Down Under and also crashes at “hog heaven.” And there, together, all three characters will presumably grow and heal.
While it doesn't dig deep enough or ring quite true enough to be all that moving, “The Boys are Back” – based on the 2001 memoir, “The Boys are Back in Town,” by Simon Carr – could have easily been a sticky sap-fest, and it's a credit to screenwriter Alan Cubitt that at least most of it isn't. On the whole, the dialogue, albeit pretty generic, isn't smothered in weepy sentimentality. And, in particular, there's an eerie, harsh reality to the way these people, specifically Artie, grieve over Katy's death: an initial disconnect that's too odd and unsettling to be read as false. There are some exchanges and passages that edge into mush (such as during the entirely unnecessary scenes in which Katy appears to Joe and counsels him from beyond the grave), and others that are simply awkward (such as when characters like Harry or Laura, Joe's potential new love interest played by Emma Booth, dish out bold, provocative statements and actions that ultimately lead nowhere). But, in general, I was just grateful that the filmmakers didn't try to forcefully syphon my tears from their ducts.
What's awfully overstated is the cinematography by Greig Fraser, who also shot Jane Campion's ravishing “Bright Star.” Captured on location in Hicks' homeland of South Australia, the imagery here is also gorgeous, but gratuitous, as the director uses every opportunity – transitions, you name it – to milk every glowing sunbeam, every crashing wave, every soaring bird, and every stretching horizon for all they're worth (which, of course, in effect, makes them worth much less). There is such a thing as too much beauty, especially if it detracts and distracts from the narrative. I found it impossible not to think that Hicks, an Oscar nominee for 1996's “Shine,” was overcompensating, or, perhaps, overindulging his affection for his stomping grounds. I also found myself wondering what I was missing while repeatedly gazing at the Australian landscape, and whether at least half of those shots could have been replaced with tidbits of juicy, gritty drama – because heaven knows this movie is in need of it.
The only real zing “The Boys are Back” boasts is that of Clive Owen, a fantastic actor of such hard-boiled emotional power, he could read off the items on a take-out menu and make it riveting. Joe is a different kind of role for Owen (one in which he smiles and laughs more than he runs and yells), but the 47-year-old Brit – who also executive-produced – brings to it his usual high level of intensity, yielding results that are better than the movie itself deserves. Owen, who always seems to be conflicted but confident, is one of the few film stars who can convey substantial character depth with only a look. Even as we're buzzing along with what too often feels like ho-hum happenings in “The Boys are Back,” we want to know Joe, what he's thinking, what he's feeling. And that's all courtesy of Owen's fine work.
The adage that Joe adopts as his new parenting slogan is “Just Say Yes,” a relatively carefree philosophy that, again, is underscored by Hicks and then isn't fully explored. My advice to you, reader, is, “Just Say No” to this film. Its heart may be in the right place, but it's only half open.