By Dan Kois
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 2, 2009
Sometimes we are jerks to our children. Especially when they are cruel to us. That's what Joe Warr (Clive Owen), an Australian sportswriter who's left raising a family alone after his wife dies, learns in "The Boys Are Back," a heartfelt but painfully slow-moving ode to the challenges of upper-middle-class single fatherhood.
Joe reacts badly when his tired, angry son Artie (Nicholas McAnulty) declares he'd rather live with another child's mother than in his father's home. "Oh yeah?" a visibly hurt Joe responds. "Then you have to go right now." As he storms out, leaving his crying son alone in his bed, Joe betrays how overwhelmed he is by the situation in which his wife's cancer has left him.
When it explores the minute-to-minute difficulties of fatherhood, and the failures of even the best parents -- the way grown men can act like boys, wounded by the thoughtless words of their kids -- "The Boys Are Back" is compelling, like an online parenting debate transplanted into real life. Caring for 6-year-old Artie as well as Harry (George MacKay), his teenage son from a previous marriage, Joe rejects rule-based parenting, and the house of men soon devolves into a kind of controlled chaos. "The more rules there are, the more laws are broken," explains Joe, and his boys are soon cannonballing into hot tubs and playing hide-and-seek in the darkest bush.
It's too bad that in order to get to the scenes of Joe and his boys, you must first slog through the dreaded dead-spouse sequence, which takes up the first 15 minutes of a film that could easily have been 20 minutes shorter. Before you can even make a dent in your popcorn, you're plunged into flashbacks of Joe and doomed Laura (Laura Fraser), living the good life in their charming Outback home. From there, "The Boys Are Back" ticks off boxes: Here's the scene where she collapses at a party; here's where Joe tries to explain her illness to Artie; here's where she dies; here's where Joe lashes out at the wake.
Why put us though this? Why should we put ourselves through this? That the scenes are sensitively written (by Allan Cubitt, based on Simon Carr's memoir) and filmed (by "Shine" director Scott Hicks) does nothing to alter their familiarity, or to mitigate the sense that the audience is being asked for too great an emotional investment in characters we hardly know.
Once we do get to know Joe, it can be hard to warm up to his plight. There are, after all, millions of single parents in the world without a steady sportswriting job, helpful friends and a cozy house in Australia. Owen, to his credit, is unafraid to make Joe irritating, the kind of dad who confidently mouths off about his philosophy of child-rearing based on his vast days of experience. His laissez-faire parenting soon butts heads with reality, as the movie gins up an unconvincing series of crises to force Joe and his kids apart -- and then takes what seems like hours to resolve its thin plot.
What power the movie has comes from its stars, especially the two boys, who give very different but very convincing performances. McAnulty, as the younger Artie, is a twitching bundle of energy, forever flitting around the issue of his mother in conversation before suddenly, painfully, landing on it. MacKay, as teenage Harry, resembles a less-hysterical Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley in the "Harry Potter" series); he's quiet and sad and lonely, and his resentment of his father's abandonment mixes uneasily with his admiration for the life his father's built.
Joe describes his parenting style as "Just say yes." By the end of "The Boys Are Back," you will feel for Joe and his kids -- but you might wish you'd just said no, instead.
The Boys Are Back (100 minutes, at Landmark's Bethesda Row Cinemas) is rated PG-13 for some sexual language and thematic elements.