The Boys Are Back opens with Joe (Clive Owen) blasting through the surf of an undisclosed beach in his Land Rover Discovery, kicking up water and sand as he clips along at a rather impressive speed. He gleefully laughs, then we see the trunk of the SUV, adorned with Joe’s son, who of course thinks this is great fun. As soon as the son entered the picture, I became white knuckled, and fretted over the safety of the actor portraying Joe’s son. I never really recovered from that scene, and kind of despised Joe throughout the movie. That makes is rather difficult to be sympathetic to his plight.
Joe is a sports writer at an Australian newspaper, and is happily married with a seven year old son, Artie (Nicholas McAnulty). He travels frequently for work and is somewhat of an absentee father. His wife Katy (played by Laura Fraser) pretty much runs the household entirely on her own. Unfortunately, his wife gets cancer and dies (no spoilers, it happens in the first 5 minutes). The opening scenes are quite upsetting, and I should caution you if you have a loved one suffering from a terminal illness, you might want to skip this movie.
Thrust into the role of primary caregiver, Joe fails miserably. Dishes and laundry pile up, and questionable food items become the norm (ketchup with noodles, anyone?). In the real world, his household would be a prime target for Child Protective Services. The movie depicts Joe’s struggle running the household quite realistically. Complicating matters further, Joe’s teenage son from a previous marriage decides that this is the appropriate time to go hang out with the father who abandoned him when he was six years old.
This was a problem for me, because if the ex-wife has kept the son away for all these years, why on earth would she put him on a plane now? Wouldn’t it occur to her that Joe must be struggling to adjust after his wife’s death? Even if she wanted to complicate things for Joe, I would think that she would consider her own child’s welfare before making her decision. It felt like a lazy way to introduce a plot device, but this movie is based on a memoir by Simon Carr, who lived through the events depicted in the movie, so somebody actually made this bad decision.
The introduction of the teenager Harry is odd. He is given a room to live in, but I was never convinced that he became part of the family. Joe tolerates Harry, but makes no attempt to bond with the boy, who is obviously trying to understand the reasoning behind his abandonment. Harry and his younger half sibling do seem to emotionally connect, and develop a genuinely sweet relationship.
Joe further earned my dislike by developing a dubious and inappropriate relationship with a single mom at school, on the very first day he takes Artie back to school after the funeral! She is literally the first woman he lays on after his wife’s death. Within days she is hovering about his house, hosting parties, and looking every bit the new girlfriend. This causes some understandable tension between Joe and the mother-in-law. I’m on team mother-in-law here.
I don’t expect my husband to live a life of celibacy and anguish if I kick off in an untimely manner, but I do expect him to wait more than a few hours before he parades the next candidate into our house. Have some respect. Even though the relationship does not become physical, it is emotional betrayal, and it is icky.
Now for the final nail in the coffin: When Joe must go cover a tennis match out of town, he can’t find anyone to watch the boys, so he lets his 12 year old stay with his 7 year old alone in the house. Brilliant, what could go wrong? After the weekend, Harry rushes back to England, traumatized by his failure to keep things in order while his dad was out of town.
Artie and Joe mope about, and I almost choked on my popcorn when Joe tells Artie he misses Harry. Really? I didn’t see any indication that Joe cared about him at all. This statement rang completely hollow to me.
I can’t help but wonder if there are some crucial parts of this film on the cutting room floor. It had some jolting editing, and I kept thinking that there were parts missing that might explain some gaps in the story. Director Scott Hicks (Shine, Snow Falling on Cedars) just doesn’t seem to be on top of his game here.
A few positives were the acting (Owen is really good in the role, and shows some nice range), and the cinematography. Joe lives on a house in the Australian country, were kangaroos hang out in their backyard. The outdoor scenes were breathtaking.
At any rate, since I disliked the main character and I didn’t buy the relationships, I just didn’t find this movie very engaging. Perhaps the book was not the best source material. I don’t know who thought it would make a good movie. It’s just okay, and I found it a little dull.