The Boys are Back opens Friday in select theaters
The Boys are Back is a tearjerker about the travails of Joe Warr (Clive Owen), a father raising two boys and trying to maintain a career after losing his wife, Katy, to cancer. Joe spends most of Boys are Back trying to hold himself together without letting his in-laws or neighbors see him break a sweat. He wants to be the quintessential cool dad, fathering according to the dictum spelled out in magnet letters on his fridge: "Just say yes." But he's not nearly as emotionally composed as he'd have everyone think he is, hallucinating visions of Katy and sometimes doubting his laissez-faire approach to parenting. Fatherhood ain't easy when you're seeing your deceased wife in the aisles of a grocery store, and asking your teenage son to take out the garbage gives you a crisis of conscience.
Joe is a tolerably macho sportswriter and presumably a fictionalized version of Simon Carr, who wrote the memoir on which Boys is based. Directed by Scott Hicks (Shine), the movie takes place mostly during a summer-long visit from Joe's son from his first marriage, the teenage Harry (George McKay), an unbelievably tolerant adolescent who gets on famously with his younger half-brother, Artie. The boys play soccer in the house, swing from dangerously high ropes in the backyard and subsist on spaghetti with ketchup while Joe snickers at parents who would raise their kids any other way.
One of the few nonformulaic surprises of Boys are Back is that the screenplay never punishes Joe for his hands-off approach to child rearing. Unfortunately, the only way to praise The Boys are Back is to focus on the mistakes it doesn't make. It doesn't penalize Joe, it doesn't get as mushy as it could have and it doesn't transform into a love story about Joe's friendship with a single mom he meets at a parent-teacher conference. In other words, it's not as bad as it could have been.
What The Boys are Back does do is set up one relationship with its audience and hover there for its entire duration: It makes you feel sorry for every character involved and rewards you for the easy empathy it rings from you. Judging from the sniffles in the theater that began at 10 minutes in and didn't stop until the closing credits, Boys excels at its questionable intent.
Popcorn napkins turn to tissues in one of the opening scenes, when Katy drops suddenly to her knees at a cocktail party. Perhaps lacking confidence in his actors' ability to show us with gesture or tone the couple's strong affection, Hicks has Joe staring into her eyes and telling her how beautiful she is right before she buckles unexpectedly. Even if this is what actually happened to memoirist Carr, it looks hacky on screen, as do later scenes in which post-mortem Katy appears in the flesh to coach Joe through some of the trickier trials of single fatherhood.
The rest of the movie feels like a checklist of key anecdotes from the book, broken up by lots of shots of the rolling Australian hills. These landscape shots could be a visual parallel to how the audience is supposed to feel traveling through Joe's ups and downs while being coddled by the pretty photography and Hicks' polite way of directing this family's arguments and dilemmas.
Trying to make a film that feels by turns joyful, poignant and painful, Hicks has only given his audience an easily accessible sob story. The film shortcuts through less navigable territory to trick ticket-buyers into mistaking a movie that can make you cry for a movie that gets at any real emotional truth.