Like the proverbial groundhog seeing its shadow, the first naked grab for Oscar gold has emerged from its hole: the mawkish family drama The Boys Are Back. We're in for a long Oscar season. This "coulda been a contender" puts Clive Owen front and center as a widower and single father attempting to be a good father to his two sons.
The underrated Owen deserves a showcase, but The Boys Are Back is the wrong vehicle. Sadly, Oscar voters aren't likely, at this late date in movie history, to recognize a snappy entertainment like Duplicity, so Owen is forced to go the sackcloth-and-ashes route with multiple crying scenes, conversations with a dead spouse, and overcooked scenes of despair, anger, and unfettered joy spent with troubled offspring.
Owen plays Joe Warr, a British sportswriter living in Australia. Rocked by the loss of his wife Katy (Laura Fraser) and unsure of how best to connect with his six-year-old son Artie (Nicholas McAnulty), Joe comes to a conclusion: he'll do whatever his son wants. It's the "JUST SAY YES" philosophy, handily spelled out in fridge magnets for any passersby aghast at the bachelor-pad mess Joe and Artie's home becomes. Joe strikes up a promising friendship with single mother Laura (Emma Booth), who asks, "You don't worry about spoiling him?" "No. That's just what he needs," Joe replies.
Child psychologists might disagree, especially when they see Joe speeding down a sun-drenched beach with his six-year-old happily holding on to the hood of the family SUV. The folks on the beach are aghast, jeering at a heedless Joe, but director Scott Hicks (Shine) winks at the scene's shock value, implying that Joe's detractors are prudes and the ride is nothing but fun in the sun. Hicks and screenwriter Allan Cubitt portray Joe's mother-in-law Barbara (Julia Blake) as a misguided fussbudget when she insists Joe's approach should be "about structure, routine, and security." With Barbara out of sight and mind, Joe returns to pillow fights, water wars, and spaghetti with ketchup.
The film's redeeming quality isn't Owen's competent performance, but rather the abrupt arrival of Harry (George MacKay), Joe's teenage son from an earlier marriage. The film never rings so true as it does when it deals with the unresolved fallout of divorce, a cause of grief nearly as destabilizing to Harry as the loss of Katy has been for Joe and Artie. Harry functions as another foil to Joe—doubting his parenting methods, getting on board, and then smarting from his misplaced trust after Joe proves he still hasn't mastered the whole fathering thing.
Though the film is based on Simon Carr's memoir The Boys Are Back in Town, it's hard to buy into the frankly insulting suggestions that this grieving but intelligent male is so reckless and that, furthermore, we should just say "Awww" to his floundering (the film is tellingly labeled as "inspired," not "based" on a true story). The filmmakers clearly feel the story won't work without farcical exaggeration and a screenplay that's much more rigidly structured than Joe's parenting. Every scene is a predictable consequence of the one before it, with one exception: the boy doesn't fling off the hood of the car. That would be too realistic.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]