THE BOYS ARE BACK
(Australia/United Kingdom, 2009. 104 minutes)
Written by: Allan Cubitt
Directed by: Scott Hicks
Cast: Clive Owen, Nicholas MacNulty, George MacKay, Laura Fraser, Emma Booth, Alexandra Shepisi
I made room for this one in my screening schedule because after a full week of near dawn-‘til-dusk angst and allegory, I craved a film I could connect with on an emotional, balls-to-the-wall sentimental level, cynics be damned. This year was my first TIFF as a new parent, you see, and a film about fatherhood was just the thing to assuage my guilt for being at the movies all day and NOT at home with my beautiful twin boys.
Prestige-picture stalwart Scott Hicks helms this heavily fictionalized adaptation of Simon Carr’s 2000 memoir, which imposes a fairly standard structure on the reporter’s anecdotal chronicle and strives admirably (and somewhat achingly in parts) to avoid TV movie clichés (which ultimately proves to be a vain pursuit).
Here, Carr becomes Joe Warr, a sports writer who has lost his wife, once a promising jockey, and struggles to raise their six year old son Artie, who still hasn’t full comprehended his mother’s passing. When Harry, his teenaged son from a previous marriage, comes to visit from England and decides he wants to stay, Joe finds his “free range” style challenged by the older boy who was raised in a more traditional, structured environment. Almost immediately after arriving, Harry reluctantly assumes the parental role that his father falls short of amidst the meddling of his in-laws and the growing pressures of his publisher.
Clive Owen, normally cast as the hard-wired laconic type, gets to loosen up as the befuddled widower whose motto “Just say yes” raises a few eyebrows from helicopter-parent-types (as well as the requisite comely single mom) who don’t respond warmly to poppa’s permissive nature. So while the youngest boy sits on the car hood as Joe speeds along the beach (dad’s probably not wearing a seat belt, either) and the house resembles a fetid trash dump, everyone learns an important lessen about individual responsibility—arguably, the result of Joe’s own extended-adolescence as it is a carefully honed manifesto. Thankfully, isn’t played for sitcom-y laughs: when Joe leaves town to cover the Australian open for his newspaper, the boys are left to their own devices (guess what can go wrong with that plan?) and the house is nearly destroyed by a teen house party that goes dingo.
Owen is aided immensely by two terrific young actors who are far removed from the cloying moppets of who tend to populate these sorts of undertakings and spend most of their screen time dropping would-be clever zingers from writers several times their age. As Artie, Nicholas McAnulty is largely required to be cute and precocious but reveals conflicted emotions behind all that unbridled, alpha-male energy. George MacKay (who might remind some viewers a little of “Harry Potter”s Rupert Grint), as the older and sensitive Harry, struggles to fit in with his new family and takes his missteps and perceived disappointments harder than his father does.
In the film’s second half, Harry returns home to his mother, prompting Joe to own up to his responsibilities and attempt to woo him back, with Artie in tow. It all builds to a climactic reunion on a London subway platform that relies a bit too much on coincidence (doesn’t anyone ever get stuck in traffic jams or have trouble hailing a cab?) and isn’t the only irksome contrivance in an otherwise well-meaning and potent romp.
Obvious and unnecessary are the visitations of his late wife’s ghost, in the Jiminy Cricket role as Joe’s troubled conscience. The initial flashback scenes with Joe and Katy (Laura Fraser) coping with the messy realities of her debilitating condition and planning for Artie’s life without her are sufficiently raw and heart-wrenching without the inclusion of a now overused convention that even “Rescue Me” dropped after a few seasons. Also, Joe’s fledging relationship with a classmate’s mother begins to crackle (after the initial meet-cute dialogue) before this turn is drop-kicked from the narrative entirely once the events leave Australia.
Mind you, very few “dads”—single or otherwise—are fortunate enough to eke out a living at a financial level where one can just fly halfway around the world to make amends with estranged lovers and children. I wasn’t expecting Ken Loach or Roberto Rossellini kitchen sink realism here, but more than once I found myself mentally quoting Elaine from “Seinfeld”: “Give me something I can use.”
The film is best taken on an episodic level, with most of its virtues found in the performances and gorgeously photographed Southern Australia scenery (further idealized by the accompaniment of Sigur Rós’ dreamy score), pamphlets for which should be handed out to grief counselors the world over.
©Robert J. Lewis 2009
Monday, September 14, 2009
THE BOYS ARE BACK