A hard-drinking, sports-loving lad learns to be a father and a man after his wife’s freak death in The Boys Are Back, a middling drama based on Simon Carr’s memoir. The film makes good use of the vulnerability lurking just underneath Clive Owen’s rugged male-model good looks; his big, sad eyes and effortless charisma make him a natural to play sensitive hunks. Not surprisingly, Boys works much better as an Owen vehicle than a movie—it’s a great, meaty part in a decidedly less-than-great film.
Owen plays a successful British sportswriter in Australia who maintains a loving but distant presence in his sons’ lives. He’s the fun-uncle kind of dad, the sort who shows up after long work trips with presents and funny stories, but is happy to leave the heavy lifting of parenting to his wife. That all changes when she dies, and Owen is suddenly called upon to become a full-time parent to their prepubescent son. After stumbling drunkenly through the first few weeks, Owen embraces a style of fatherhood that can charitably be called laissez-faire, and not-so-charitably derided as dangerously negligent. The stakes become even higher when Owen’s teenage son (George MacKay) by a previous marriage shows up for a visit, and Owen has to juggle his ever-increasing familial responsibilities with life as a globetrotting hotshot sportswriter.
Shine director Scott Hicks and screenwriter Allan Cubitt deserve credit for not always steering the material in expected directions. A possible love-interest subplot goes nowhere, and the screenplay admirably elides hagiography, big dramatic moments, and easy epiphanies. They also deserve blame for never steering the film into interesting directions, either. In spite of the fine lead performance, Back is a grey, unedifying slog from grief and hopelessness to parental semi-competence. It’s a film about treasuring the small moments and minor victories of single parenthood that collectively never amounts to anything more than a big shrug.