Im not a parent, and most folks who spend any significant amount of time around me will probably tell you thats a good thing. But even a corrosive influence like yours truly finds something a bit hinky about the motto Just Say Yes. At least when applied to raising children.

The Boys Are Back, gauzily adapted by director Scott Hicks from Simon Carrs memoir, stars Clive Owen as hard-drinking sportswriter Joe Warr. (So, Scott Carr becomes Joe Warr? Its hard not to marvel at screenwriter Allan Cubitts boundless creativity.)

Joes a charming fellow who spends most of his time on the road, leaving his saintly wife Katy (Laura Fraser) to raise their adorable little moppet, Artie (Nicholas McAnulty.) But after Katy suffers the swiftest, most beatific death from bowel cancer in the history of movies, Joes left alone in their gorgeous Australian beach house, boozing it up while tending to a grieving tyke he barely knows.

Grade: C-

Director: Scott Hicks

Starring: Clive Owen, Emma Booth, George MacKay

Running time: 104 minutes

Based on a book by: Simon Carr

He suffers a rather cracked epiphany while on a father-son road trip, catching young Artie doing cannonballs into a dangerously shallow motel bathtub. Joes eyes light up, the music swells and he finds himself cheering on the little fellows reckless behavior. Henceforth, our heros philosophy of parenthood is spelled out in magnetic alphabet letters on the cluttered kitchen fridge: Just Say Yes.

We get a couple of windbag monologues about how most parents are too over-protective and controlling, but surely these folks cant be serious, right? Theres got to be some sort of middle ground between responding thoughtfully to a childs irrational requests and speeding down a crowded beachfront with your toddler perched on the windshield.

Also, if a kid is only nine you probably shouldnt let him drive.

Its tough to tell what screenwriter Cubitt and director Hicks make of Mr. Warrs radical new approach to fatherhood. Angsty teenage Harry (Ron Weasley look-alike George MacKay) is Joes abandoned son from a previous marriage, and he arrives for a lengthy visit, only to be appalled by the slovenly living conditions, lack of structure and general disrepair of the Warr household. But at the same time he also thinks his dad is really cool.

The filmmakers seem to be suffering from the same confusion, for every scene in which a rational adult figure calls Joe on his bullshit, there are at least three more where we see him heroically mocking uptight mums with all their silly rules.

Emma Booth plays a divorced mother to one of Arties classmates, and even though she summons enough pluck to tell him point blank: You drink too much and live like a pig, shes also always coming around to babysit, helps with the dishes and clearly wants to sleep with him.

You cant really blame her. He is, after all, Clive Owen. Frankly theres nobody better at doing that smoldering, battered integrity thing these days, and in most films it feels like Owen has time-warped in from an earlier, more complicated era of movie stars who were a lot less concerned with being likeable all the time.

Owen seems to have a better handle on Joe than either Hicks or Cubitt. Whereas the filmmakers have a weird crush on their protagonist and his maverick-y wisdom, the actor consistently foregrounds his characters selfishness. Unafraid of coming off as less than the heroic figure hes always being painted as, Owen actually seems to be working against the movie, revealing Joe as a smooth-talker who has thus far coasted through life on his considerable wit and charm, only to petulantly act out when a bit more is finally required of him, even at this advanced age.

Its a subversive piece of work. Owens unvarnished helplessness clanging against Hicks glossy Australian Tourist Board visual flourishes and a screenwriters notion of conflict resolution that could charitably be called absurd. There are plenty of times you can see an actor whos too good for a particular movie. But rarely do you see one try and fix it on his own.

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