Usually when we think of Clive Owen, we think of assassins, sleazy cops, and spies. His masculinity and powerful charisma usually draws us in to endear a criminal or tough guy, so his role as Joe Warr in The Boys are Back comes as a shock — but a welcomed one. Though the character’s name sounds like it would fit right into one of Owen’s previous movies, Joe turns out to be nothing more than an ordinary man trying to deal with ordinary problems. Owen’s likability is cranked up — not because of his sex appeal, but because of his humor, timing, and ability to capture the audiences’ hearts.
Joe is a sports reporter, loving husband and father. He’s made a few mistakes, like getting his current Australian wife Katy pregnant while he already had a wife and boy in England. Still, life isn’t so bad for Joe — that is, until Katy (Laura Fraser) dies suddenly. Now Joe is left to care for their 6 year old son, Artie (Nicholas McAnulty). This proves to be quite the challenge, since as a sports reporter Joe was rarely at home to really get to know his son, and Artie has his own unique ways of dealing with his grief. This post-Katy Joe is withdrawn at first, but quickly realizes the gravity of his responsibilities, and just as Joe must put off his own anguish, Owen asks us to put off our empathetic sorrow.
He really seems to be getting a hold on life again, but the grief always manages to sneak in through the cracks. In one powerful scene that gave me goosebumps, Joe calls Harry(George MacKay), his teenage son from his previous marriage, to tell him that Katy has passed. Owen shows just how talented he is as Joe nearly has a breakdown on the phone, catches himself, and pulls it back together so he appears strong in front of his son. This was one of the best acting moments I have seen this year.
Harry ends up coming to live with Joe and Artie, moving from his home in England to theirs in Australia. Joe has found that it is easier and everyone is happier if they live by the saying “Just Say Yes,” and describes their household as a “hog heaven.” Basically, he gives in to the kids and deals out very limited responsibility or structure. There are quite a few times that this proved to be dangerous, and every parent in the theater was on the edge of their seat, ready to wring Joe’s neck. The audience wasn’t the only ones on the fence with Joe’s parenting; several characters displayed their disagreement, including Katy’s mother, saying, “I think you’re making a big mistake,” to which Joe replies, “Wouldn’t be the first time.” We come along as Joe, Harry, and Artie learn to deal with grief, divorce, and living in a house without a woman’s influence.
Credit is due to screenwriter Allen Cubitt and director Scott Hicks for adapting the true story memoir (with the same title) by Simon Carr. They were able to produce a film with a topic surrounding the clichéd Hollywood theme of ‘the dead mommy’, and bring in realism, humor, and heartstring-tugging moments into a very balanced piece of work, without being over the top or weepy. Hicks uses scenery that is as warm as the story itself, and combines that with some great editing and well placed music. Owen was fantastic, but the boys really shined. Nicholas McAnulty is a clever little 6 year old making his acting debut. He has a real knack for acting; his portrayal of Artie is spot on, from carrying around a ratty old monkey, to being angry and collapsing in grief, to being a hilarious true six year old — surprising you with dialog like “I’m begging you with all my mouth,” and “Cat food looks better than it tastes.” George MacKay portrays Harry as a hurt teen, without the usual angst and mouthiness we are used to seeing in films. He is a quiet and well-behaved kid, but can still be feisty and quick-witted. It won’t surprise me to see more of these two in bigger films in the near future.
The Boys are Back is an experiment of male survival as a family unit without the tenderness of a mother — appropriately described by Joe himself, saying, “It’s Home Alone, with the three of us.” When trying to nail down a target audience, the mind does draw a blank, but it’s definitely one movie that shouldn’t go under the radar until it’s DVD release. If you’re looking for a good, honest, and emotionally diverse film, then go see this one.
I give The Boys are Back 4 ‘tasty looking bowls of cat food’ out of 5.