The Boys Are Back

© 2009 Ray Wong


Based on a semi-biographical novel, The Boys Are Back chronicles the journey of a grieving widower and his plight of being a single father of two boys.

Joe Warr (Clive Owen) is an Australian sports writer. He seems to have everything -- a loving marriage, an adoring son, and a fletching career -- when his wife, Katy (Laura Fraser) succumbs to cancer. Throughout the ordeal, his son, Artie (Nicholas McAnulty), seems emotionally detached from it all. After a brief battle, Katy dies and Joe is left with the sole responsible of taking care of Artie. Suffering from depression himself, Joe lets Artie do whatever he wants, and he's neglecting everything from his job to the upkeep of his house.

p1Despite the objection of Artie's maternal grandmother Barbara (Julia Blake), Joe and Artie's daily lives become a hectic, structureless exercise of spontaneity. Joe befriends fellow single parent Laura (Emma Booth), who is led to believe Joe is romantically interested in her. But all Joe wants is a babysitter to make his life easier. When his other son Harry from a previous marriage (George MacKay) decides to spend some time with them, Joe scrambles to reconnect with a young man he hasn't seen for 8 years.

The multitude of responsibilities, expectations and his sons' detachment eventually come crushing down on Joe. His sadness, frustration and isolation leads to angry outbursts that further alienate his sons. Through it all, Joe must learn to become the father he needs to be, while turning his grief into something positive.

p2Clive Owen (Duplicity) sheds his slick action star image to portray a common man, a grieving widower and a struggling father. In many ways, Joe Warr reminds me of Owen's role in Children Of Men (though without the explosions and car chases) -- detached, emotionally handicapped, and jaded. Owen, despite his movie star persona, is an actor first, and his portrayal as the flawed protagonist in this film is seasoned, affecting, and sympathetic. Joe Warr isn't going to win any Father Of the Year award, but you can't help but understand his pains, struggles and, most important, love for his children.

Laura Fraser (The Passion) is achingly beautiful as Joe's wife, Katy. The scenes of her being sick and eventual death are sad to watch. She also appears to Joe as some kind of spirit/spiritual guidance/memory. Fraser does a great job as the emotional core of the story even though she doesn't have a lot of scenes. Emma Booth (Town Creek) is appealing as the kind friend who could be Joe's potential love interest. There's this subtle sexual tension and yearning in her portrayal beside her restraint.

p3George MacKay (Defiance) and Nicholas McAnulty play Harry and Artie respectively. MacKay effectively portrays the quiet, reserved and introspective teenager, who yearns for his father's love more than anything else. McAnulty has the tough job of playing a wayward child that is at times sweet and adorable, and at times wild and obnoxious. He does a good job of making us care about Artie without being insufferable.

The supporting cast also includes Julie Blake (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) as Artie's grannie -- her performance is heartfelt and sympathetic -- and Erik Thomson (Accidents Happen) as Joe's colleague and best friend.

p4Adapted by Allan Cubitt (Murphy's Law), the script is strongly character-driven and light on plot. It wastes no time to establish Joe's pediments. Though brief, the scenes with Joe and Katy are surprisingly strong and emotional; I give kudos to the actors for creating such a strong relationship out of a few words on the page. Once the story settles on Joe and Artie, however, it becomes rather mundane and dull. There simply isn't a whole lot of plot, so there really is no suspense, mystery, or surprises. What we have are characters, and to Cubitt's credit, he's made good use of silence, subtleties, symbolisms, subtexts and dialogue to create these characters and their relationships.

The problem is that the story is simply too trivial -- not that death of a spouse or mother is anything to sneeze at, but that alone doesn't make a compelling story. In fact, the story is depressing because the characters continue to wallow in their self-pity and sorrow; it's too quiet to be dramatic, including the ending.

Scott Hicks' (No Reservations) direction is appropriate for the film: which is to say, it's really slow. The cinematography is breathtaking and it captures Australia very well. And there are some moments that are quite magical. But over all, the film is slight but feels heavy. At 104 minutes, it feels long as well.

It makes me wonder: real-life tragedies may be heartbreaking and dramatic for everyone involved, but they may not make arresting dramas. The Boys Are Back has excellent acting, good characterization, and true emotions, but without a strong plot, the movie simply feels drawn-out and mundane, and it's not a pleasant thing to watch people, especially children, being sad and depressed for two hours. I won't be back.

Stars: Clive Owen, Laura Fraser, Emma Lung, George MacKay, Julia Blake, Emma Booth, Erik Thomson, Nicholas McAnulty
Director: Scott Hicks
Writers: Allan Cubitt (based on Simon Carr's novel)
Distributor: Miramax
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexual language and thematic elements
Running Time: 104 Minutes


Script – 6
Performance – 8
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 8
Music/Sound– 7
Editing – 7
Production – 7

Total – 6.6 out of 10

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