After the last few years, we've grown quite accustomed to Clive Owen as the headlining, slick star, whether that be chowing down carrots and shooting people up, living black and white and dangerous as Dwight, or dealing with a world that no longer has children. What's easy to forget in all of his fame, however, is that the man has more than an irresistible delivery and on-screen charm. He's an actor with subtlety, one whose very presence can change. In films like Closer, that meant a fresh layer of smarminess and sleaze. In The Boys Are Back, it means showing the familial heart underneath the macho exterior.
Based on Simon Carr's novel, Owen stars as Joe Warr – a sports reporter in Australia who is the classic father figure, the loving but slightly absent provider. But when his wife suddenly falls ill and passes away, Joe is forced to take on a new role as the sole parental figure. He still must provide security, but now that means a lot more than just money. He is the caretaker to his young son Artie (Nicholas McAnulty), and must not only provide for him, but also help the young boy deal with the loss of his mother, and give the boy the emotional comfort he needs to heal.
At a loss for how to deal with Artie, Joe adapts by taking on a "just say yes" mentality that, at first, seems to work. Their lives become a chaotic boys' club of laughs, dangerousness, and messiness, whether that be a beautiful whirlwind ride along the beach for Artie on the roof of Joe's jeep, or just piling up dishes in the sink like a classic bachelor's pad. This new life allows Joe to lull himself into a false sense of security, which is inevitably threatened by the sudden arrival of his older son, Harry (George MacKay). (Before Joe's idyllic Australian life, he had a failing marriage and son in the UK that he had to leave behind.) Only a teen, Harry serves as the moral challenge to the home's chaos. He's grown up in a structured environment and can't relate to Joe and Artie's chaos, but is still looking for a connection with the father he barely knows.
From a score by Sigur Ros to the beautiful backdrop of a deep blue sea contrasting the rolling lands of green and yellow, The Boys Are Back has the basis to be a great film, and, at times, it is. In solitary moments, the film offers both the laughs and heartache that Joe must face, but it's not in a perfectly formed package. This is a slow path of mourning and discovery, and it moves as such – comfortable to sit back and allow things to unfold, rather than forming a concise and carefully edited path.
Although this is the film about a journey to a new way of life, the magic is in the moments, which are, at times, so sweet, sad, or carefree that they carry the rest of the film to a satisfying conclusion. While we only know his wife for a short time, it's easy to feel the pain of her passing and Joe's unswerving love for her. One can't help but be charmed by the joy in Artie's eyes as he clutches to Joe's jeep roof, or chuckle when Joe tells his son to put his shoes on the other (right) feet, and Artie retorts: "These are the only feet I've got." In fact, as great as Owen is as the man learning to connect with his sons, his younger co-stars are scene-stealers. McAnulty is the wild, but good-hearted boy who instantly grabs your heart, while MacKay does a great job balancing the myriad of emotions and thoughts Harry is plagued with. He desperately wants to connect with his father, but is also bitter that he was abandoned. He is a curious and normal teen, but not necessarily the quintessential movie teen we've come to know who makes bad choices to provide moments of crisis. (In one of Harry's best scenes, he is thrust into a situation he could give in to or fight against, and his choice allows for the needed drama without the expected actions.)
This is, yet again, another film that doesn't really live up to the success and critical acclaim director Scott Hicks had with Shine, but it's definitely a step in the right direction.