Review of The Boys are Back

When dealing with death onscreen, a little emotional honesty goes a long way. It’s what made the opening sequence from Pixar’s Up one the most emotionally resonant treatments of the subject in years and it’s what keeps The Boys are Back from descending into pure melodrama. While it still leans dangerously close to saccharine at times, the film, based on British journalist Simon Carr’s memoir, is saved by a heart-wrenching performance from Clive Owen.

In a major departure from his recent string of thrillers, Owen plays a well-paid, devastatingly handsome sports writer of the sort that only seems to exist in Hollywood depictions of print journalism. He’s not a bad husband and father by any stretch, but he’s also not a very involved one — work keeps him away from his home in Australia for long stretches, but there are always gifts and plenty of smiles when he comes back.

All that changes when his wife dies of cancer. Suddenly, Owen is forced to take on the task of raising his young son (a surprisingly good Nicholas McAnulty) and it’s not a particularly smooth transition. To complicate matters further, his teenaged son from a previous marriage (George MacKay, looking more than a little like Ron Weasley) has decided to move in, making for three sulky boys all under one roof.

It’s a scenario that’s ripe for cheap sentimentality and director Scott Hicks doesn’t always resist the temptation. For a film that’s grounded in well-observed moments like Owen choking back tears on a phone call with his older son, some of the more overly cinematic gestures come across contrived — a series of conversations between Owen and his dead wife being a particularly egregious example. But even when Hicks indulges in pillow fights and water-balloon battles, there’s a joy behind the sentimentality that makes it easy to forgive.

More than anything, though, this is Owen’s show. The typically macho actor seems to revel in the chance to show off his sensitive side, even if that sensitivity is couched in anger or evasiveness most of the time. He hinted at that depth in Children of Men, but never to the extent on display here — looks like he has a safety net if the whole action hero thing doesn’t pan out.

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