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Owen buoys a mixed film about growing up
The Boys Are Back (DVD)
Member Name: shaneo632
The Boys Are Back (DVD)
Disadvantages: A bit overwrought
note: also appears on my film review site, TheFilmBlogger.com
Joe (Clive Owen)'s wife dies from cancer, and he is left to tend for their odd young son, Artie (Nicholas McAnulty). A fairly trite flashback within the first few minutes paints a portrait of his departed wife, Katy (Laura Fraser), as a dedicated mother, helping her son to read. There's also plenty of middle-class whimsy, and indeed, The Boys Are Back, the latest film from acclaimed Shine director Scott Hicks, layers the sentiment on thick from the outset. However, it's redeemed largely by a rare prestige-pic foray by talented lead Clive Owen, who proves himself among the first-rate of British actors working today.
There isn't a moment where this film doesn't belong to Owen, and it's clear from minute one that he is the buoyant force. If the overt sentiment is the adversity for mild prestige films like this, then Owen is the gallant hero smiting it down with a turn that is two parts suave, and three parts sympathy incarnate. The script, while platitude-infused, doesn't go totally wrong; it cements Joe's isolation, given the inability or simple disinclination for his son to truly come to terms with the death of his mother. The kid can't empathise with those horrifying nights that Joe cradled his dying wife in his arms as she took what might be her last breath (in the film's grimmest scene).
Where the film goes wrong is with the family drama clichés; Artie acts out, but comes across more as annoying than in any way sympathetic, while Joe appears the saint even if his "just say yes" attitude to fill the void left by Katy is, of course, totally irresponsible. At times, this method is harmless, in allowing Artie to perform dive-bombs into the bathtub, but this also extends to allowing him to run riot with immature fits, and so Joe has to slowly learn how to balance fun with responsibility. Joe's development as a parent is spelled out all too easily, though, with Joe's wife popping into frame every so often to offer a bit of wisdom, lazily spelling out what a tighter script could have managed without such well-worn contrivances. It's not that The Boys Are Back doesn't hit any emotional notes, because it does, but Hicks plays so eagerly with your heart-strings, in filling the film with plenty of "poignant", dialogue-free, picturesque scenes backed by tender music, that the result is often more alienating than emotive.
It isn't until close to the half-way mark that Joe's miserable son from his previous marriage, Harry (George MacKay), abounds, giving Joe the job of breaking the dull sad sack down over a few dramatic scenes, before leaving the two estranged step-brothers together to bond. While the aforementioned is all sappy operating procedure, the film earns a few points for not taking the incredibly obvious love interest route with Joe's recently single friend Laura (Emma Booth), who is herself a single parent. However, it sidesteps that cliché before tripping over another one, as some very flimsy friction between the two emerges, and the term "in a relationship" is thrown around out of nowhere. From that point, there's more familial tension as Harry has a plate-breaking episode in the film's most overwrought moment, causing the audience to view Owen's character as the poor sap who has to apologise for near enough doing nothing wrong.
The bulk of the film's narrative consists of Joe's unruly kids doing progressively more stupid things, and a cheap melodramatic twist near the film's climax is especially cheeky, but The Boys Are Back may well be the most singularly potent examination of a single father since the 1979 masterpiece Kramer vs. Kramer. Owen's mesmerising performance brings soul to a film that concedes a lot through its predictability and occasionally overwrought tone.
Summary: A sweet, well intended tale