Truth Feels Contrived in "The Boys Are Back"
- Friday, October 16, 2009
Release Date: September 25, 2009 (limited); wider through October
Rating: PG-13 (for language, sexual language, and thematic elements)
Genre: Drama, Adaptation
Run Time: 104 min.
Director: Scott Hicks
Cast: Clive Owen, Nicholas McAnulty, George MacKay, Emma Booth, Laura Fraser
It's not impossible for Hollywood to take a true story and actually do it justice, but it's rare.
The natural tendency is to conform the complexities of real-life into a three-act structure with familiar dramatic beats, in part because it's safe but also for practical reasons (you have to cram weeks, months or years into two hours). Some films are able to capture the essence of truth into this compressed medium, while most others are just pretenders. Despite admirable intentions, The Boys Are Back is just a pretender.
It's a bit shocking, actually, to know this is based on a personal memoir because the melodramatic adaptation feels entirely contrived, even blatantly manipulative. Clive Owen plays Joe Warr, an Australian on his second marriage with one son from each. The second go-around has definitely been the right one as Joe and his wife Katy live in pure marital bliss—well, in the little we see of it until she suddenly, tragically dies, leaving Joe alone with their six-year-old Artie (Nicholas McAnulty).
In the midst of his grief, Joe must come to terms with the lack of connection he has not only with Artie but also the son from his first marriage—Harry—who now lives in London with his mother. Feeling guilt over both, Joe goes to great lengths to reconnect and become the father he wants to be, and knows he must be. All well-and-good, and certainly a journey worth exploring, but wow, this one is a real head-scratcher.
Joe's approach to ingratiating himself with his kids comes in the form of a "refrigerator magnet" epiphany; he sees a phrase spelled out in colorful plastic letters that reads, simply, "JUST SAY YES". That edict becomes his parenting mantra, saying "yes" to any request his boys make; life, after all, is too short to say "no", right? Want to play soccer in the house? Go for it. Eat ketchup with noodles for dinner? Bon appétit. Leave sons home alone for two days while Dad's away? No problem. Are you feeling the warm-fuzzies yet?
Apparently the local mothers aren't who, as they see Joe's devil-may-care approach, are narrowly portrayed like uptight shrews as they gasp and critique his instincts—his mother-in-law especially so, who exists primarily to give Joe the proverbial killjoy speech about how kids need structure and discipline.
The reality is that the women are actually right even if their spirit is not, yet the film's backward perspective would have us feel otherwise. Laura (Emma Booth), the only supportive neighbor, also happens to be the most attractive single one and, predictably, she and Joe become involved—although a bit too quickly after Katy's passing to feel right, especially given how Joe still sees visions of his dead wife and has full conversations with her (definitely the film's most schmaltzy stroke).
This is the core fundamental problem: The Boys Are Back doesn't evolve or substantiate either its narrative progression or emotional turns; it just makes them. We're given all of the big dramatic moments—love, joy, death, grief, aftermath, etc.—but without any development. We're supposed to take each turn at face value without ever really knowing these people beyond the generic life moments portrayed. It's as if the filmmakers are saying, "Here's the tragic story of a widower—now feel!"
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