3 stars, (PG-13)
The Boys Are Back is a story of a widowed father and his sons, grief and the immense challenge of parenting, based on a 2001 memoir by Simon Carr. The movie has problems, but I liked watching normally stoic Clive Owen play a vulnerable character, I thought the two young actors playing the sons were very good and I appreciated the sense of reality in the family dynamic. Director Scott Hicks also did Shine and he knows how to assemble a well-lit film that flows smoothly.
In the big-screen adaptation of the memoir, Simon Carr becomes Joe Warr (Owen), a successful sports writer in Australia whose wife dies. In addition to dealing with the grief, Joe must go from being a mostly-away-at-work pop to a full-time father for his 6-year-old son, Artie (Nicholas McAnulty). The situation becomes even tougher when Harry (George McKay), Joe's teenage son from his first marriage, arrives from England for an extended visit.
Having made it clear how much I enjoyed watching the family and what a fine job the actors did, it's time to air the complaints. Early in the film, we see Joe driving around the beach with 6-year-old Artie on the hood of his SUV. This is presented as a display of freedom, of living on the edge and embracing the moment. However, the words that popped into my head were "stupid," "reckless," "irresponsible," "criminal" and "he's going to kill that kid!"
Through most of the story, Joe practices what the memoir describes as "free range" parenting. What we actually see is a disturbed man trying to twist his major depression into a lifestyle choice. Depression isn't a philosophy. It's a crippling condition that makes it hard to do even the simplest of things. It drives you to isolate, curl up in a ball and put your life on "idle." "Free range" parenting my ass. Joe is simply inflicting his condition on his sons. Fine, perhaps that reflects what happened in the memoir. But why did screenwriter Allan Cubitt and director Hicks choose to picture it as a noble, romantic attempt at innovative parenting instead of a dangerous symptom?
Three other elements of the movie that annoyed me. First, did this production really require a voice-over narrative? There are few films that benefit from the protagonist prattling on to the viewer (The Informant! being a recent notable exception.) Second, why are all the women who dare to question Joe's lousy decisions presented as prigs or shrews? Finally, enough with ghostly advisors! Joe's dead wife Katy (Laura Fraser) makes frequent appearances for a portion of the film as an apparition that hangs out with Joe, offering advice and support.
Apparitions are quite popular in movies and especially TV. Have you seen Denis Leary's TV series Rescue Me, where so many ghosts hang out with him that living, breathing humans can barely fit in the room? Yes, it's just a story device, but it's a lazy, tired story device. At one point in the movie, I thought, "Why are you so grief-stricken, Joe? You're spending more time with her now than you did when she was alive!"
Still, I liked The Boys Are Back enough to offer a modest recommendation. The storytelling methods are sometimes irritating and putting a poetic spin on bad parenting is a big mistake, but the core relationships are well-acted and involving, and Joe's behavior is stupid enough to be be believable. 103 minutes.