Father knows best

The Boys Are Back

Smile! You’re in a depressing feature film!

Smile! You’re in a depressing feature film!

Rated 3.0

In The Boys Are Back, the new Australian movie from director Scott Hicks, Clive Owen smiles more than he has in all his other movies put together—which is odd, considering that this one is (at least initially) about grief and loss. Owen’s lugubrious moping through movies like Closer, The International and Sin City has been his performances’ salient feature, and casting him as a suddenly widowed father trying to raise two sons alone might have been fraught with gloomy pitfalls. Hicks probably deserves credit that it isn’t, but so does Owen; it’s his best and most nuanced performance to date.

Owen plays Joe Warr, a star sports reporter for a major newspaper. Joe is usually away from home covering this tennis tournament or that rugby match, leaving Katy (Laura Fraser), the wife he adores, in charge of maintaining their rural South Australia home and raising their 6-year-old son, Artie (Nicholas McAnulty). When Katy falls victim to an undetected and swiftly fatal cancer, Joe is forced not only to cope with his own loss, but with Artie’s, and to shoulder the responsibilities of parenthood that he was always happy to leave to Katy.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s Harry (George MacKay), the other son Joe left in England with his first wife when he ran off to marry Katy. Harry was Artie’s age when Joe left; he’s an adolescent now, and he comes for an extended summer visit. With his second wife dead and his first wife halfway around the world, Joe must now step up and be a father to two boys he barely knows.

Joe’s philosophy of parenthood is, in his own words, “Just say yes”—perfectly embodied in the movie’s opening scene, as Joe drives his SUV madly along a beach with Artie sitting on the hood, clinging gleefully to the windshield wipers, raising indignant yelps from other families splashing in the surf and scurrying to safety as Joe and Artie pass.

As Joe’s laissez-faire approach leads to a house heaping with dirty dishes and piled laundry, it draws more focused indignation from Joe’s mother-in-law (Julia Blake) and a neighbor (Emma Booth) who, almost in spite of herself, takes a shine to him. Is Joe giving his sons an admirable degree of freedom, or is he too self-absorbed and lazy to set reasonable limits? Is he helping to shape them into men, or is he refusing to be one himself? Is he being an irresponsible father or trusting them with mature responsibilities?

More to the point, are they—especially Harry—even ready for the responsibilities he thrusts on them? That last question comes to a head late in the second act, when the movie flirts dangerously around the outskirts of melodrama.

The Boys Are Back carries that dreaded opening message—white letters on black, so we know how serious it is—that the movie is “inspired by a true story.” (Big deal; so was Inglourious Basterds.) To be sure, Allan Cubitt’s script is based on a memoir by Simon Carr, but Cubitt’s record with adaptations is not reassuring. His 2002 script for The Hound of the Baskervilles is possibly the worst Sherlock Holmes movie ever made (the one coming this Christmas from Guy Ritchie may give it a run for its money, but I digress).

Cubitt changes all the names, and his protagonist’s job (Simon Carr is a political columnist, not a sportswriter), so it’s reasonable to wonder whether Cubitt has fictionalized Carr’s story or falsified it (as he falsified Holmes and Watson in The Hound). Certainly there’s an unseemly dependence on the scenic glories of the Australian countryside, the sun-dappled beaches, the billabongs, the coolibah trees—even Joe’s heated confrontation with his mother-in-law is staged amid the splendor of a perfectly manicured vineyard. Greig Fraser’s cinematography is postcard lovely, but it comes close to tarting the movie up as a shill for Aussie tourism.

What saves The Boys Are Back from Lifetime channel slickness is Hicks’ sensitive direction and the performances he draws from Owen, McAnulty and MacKay; it’s no small thing to nurture rapport among actors whose characters have a distinct lack of it. Owen has never been this good before; the two boys are newcomers, but they may never be this good again.