Thursday, October 15, 2009

Arrested development: The Boys Are Back

Ace sportswriter Joe Warr (Clive Owen) left England, a wife and a child to live in Australia, the home of a lovely equestrienne whom he knocked up and fell in love with. But the equestrienne unexpectedly dies far too young and too quickly, and grief-stricken Joe’s left with a slightly weird little boy (Nicholas McAnulty) he doesn’t really know how to raise. Before long his first child, now a teen (George MacKay), suddenly decides to come down under to spend an indeterminate period with his long-lost pa, too. Joe, now pulling double duty as a full-timer, finds he’s in need of a philosophy of parenting. He opts for JUST SAY YES—the motto appears on his refrigerator in magnetic letters—and sets about proving that slovenly permissiveness and playtime all-the-time can be both fun and therapeutic.

Of course disaster awaits, though the predictable and perfunctory disaster is actually pretty minor, its fallout racking up a lot of air miles more than anything else. Adapted by Allan Cubitt from Simon Carr’s memoir, The Boys Are Back is somewhat shapeless, meandering its way through Joe’s widower’s crisis without ever really being as hard on the guy as it seems to think its being. Joe’s irresponsible about a lot of things and reveals himself to be a poor negotiator with both adults and children. He lets the little one run wild and do belly flops into hotel jacuzzis. He stamps off in a huff when his mother-in-law doesn’t offer to help him out at a moment’s notice. He does a lousy job of courting another single parent, roping her into babysitting before he ever takes her out on a date. So his flaws are laid out for us to survey and cluck our tongues at. Yet somewhere between the condensation of Carr’s book into movie form and Shine director Scott Hicks’ brimming affections for the all-too-likable Owen and the golden glow of the Australian countryside, urgency and a desirable edge evaporates.

At least Owen, himself a dad, not to mention the film’s executive producer, truly does seem to immerse himself into all this. I found myself resisting The Boys Are Back and then warming up to it, mainly due to Owen’s commitment to connecting with his young costars. We’re meant to look down on Joe’s refusal to judge and play the strict patriarch as much as we’re invited to smile along with it when it’s all harmless shenanigans. But the most interesting moments actually arise from Joe’s counterintuitive acceptance of his children’s more erratic behaviour, such as when McAnulty is disturbingly obtuse and unaffected by his mother’s death. Hicks frames a lot of scenes very prettily and softens their effect further by bathing them in cocoon-like songs from Sigur Rós, but when Owen’s face becomes stone cold and withdrawn, or when that icy exterior breaks and we sense a decision is made before it’s actually announced, something works here in spite of itself. You can probably tell that I like Owen very much as an actor, but I’m still not sure what to make of his career.

No comments: