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Dustin Putman

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The Boys are Back  (2009)
2 Stars
Directed by Scott Hicks.
Cast: Clive Owen, Nicholas McAnulty, George MacKay, Laura Fraser, Emma Booth, Erik Thomason, Natasha Little, Emma Lung.
2009 – 104 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for some sexual language and thematic elements).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 23, 2009.
Talk about a wasted opportunity. Despite the evocative title, don't expect to hear any classic Thin Lizzy licks during "The Boys Are Back," a well-acted, weak-kneed drama about a father of two struggling to move forward after the death of his wife. The soundtrack instead relies on the songs of Sigur Ros, an ethereal Icelandic rock band that disappointingly does not get to showcase its arguably best and most popular song, "Hoppipolla." "Hoppipolla" is soaring and emotional, and that is what is missing from this film. While director Scott Hicks (2007's "No Reservations") thankfully avoids easy, maudlin sentimentality, he goes too far in the opposite direction and ends up with an awkwardly indifferent experience. "The Boys Are Back" is too low-key for its own good.

When wife Katy (Laura Fraser) passes away from cancer, sports writer Joe Warr (Clive Owen) is suddenly left to care for six-year-old son Artie (Nicholas McAnulty) on his own. For a guy who used to take off for days at a time for business while Katy handled everything at home, Joe's new life is a startling change for him. He's not good at—or all that bothered about—housework, and, in an attempt to give Artie the space he needs to also deal with the loss of his mommy, sets few rules for him that don't involve having fun. Really, it's just a sign of Joe's own fear—fear of being solely responsible for another human being, and fear over losing his top spot in his competitive profession. A further unforeseen corkscrew arrives when teenage son Harry (George MacKay)—his first child from a previous marriage—comes to stay with them. Harry hopes to spend some quality time with his father, but his resentment over being the other son—the one left behind years ago as Joe moved on and started a new life with someone else—unavoidably weighs down on him.

The pressing question asked in "The Boys Are Back" is whether Joe and sons Harry and Artie will be able to work out their differences, their hang-ups, and their overall grief in order to start a new family unit. The answer is far from surprising. Though we are informed at the start that the film is "inspired by a true story" (based on the memoir by Simon Carr, adapted for the screen by Allan Cubitt), the particulars of the plot are so overly familiar that it could just as easily be inspired by half the population's stories. There is nothing at all distinguishable about this particular telling. Director Scott Hicks is aware that saccharine melodrama is not needed, but he is seemingly so careful in his handling of the material that he renders the results stodgy. There are no unforeseen developments, no moments to make you sit up and take note, and nothing that feels fresh—save for some landscapes. With its sweeping yellow meadows and rocky vistas, South Australia is put to picturesque use by cinematographer Greig Fraser.

The performances are strong, too. Clive Owen (2009's "The International") aims for authenticity over obvious ploys for yanking the viewer's tear ducts as Joe Warr. The most effective moment in the film is his subtle but stingingly true reaction to a rebelling Artie telling him he doesn't want to live with him anymore. Joe loves his kids more than anything, and that is what is most evident within Owen's performance. Why he allows his six-year-old to freely sit on the hood of his car as he zooms down the beach is up for debate, however. As sons Harry and Artie, George MacKay (2003's "Peter Pan") and newcomer Nicholas McAnulty are excellent, not a dishonest onscreen moment among them. Emma Booth is a bright find, if underused, as Laura, a single mother who meets Joe at Artie's school and befriends him. Suggestion of a romance between these two is a non-starter, leading one to question her significance. Finally, Laura Fraser (2001's "A Knight's Tale"), as Katy, is effective early on as the final stages of cancer overtake her, but the way that her spirit occasionally pops up to talk to and advise Joe is an overdone, artificial narrative device that should have been cut out of the final product.

"The Boys Are Back" is the kind of simply written little character drama that usually is quite appealing. The difference this time is that, in its restraint and formula storytelling, the film comes off as stale and forgettable. The people are nice enough and their happiness is deserved, but we do not grow to care enough about them to put much stock in the foregone outcome. Indifference, then, takes over. Where's Thin Lizzy when you need them?
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman