BUDDY FILM: Clive Owen plays an indulgent parent to Harry (George MacKay, left) and Artie (Nicholas McAnulty) in 'The Boys Are Back.'
In 'The Boys Are Back,' it's pizza in bed and tears before bedtime.
By Richard von Busack
BILL MURRAY, back at No. 1 at the box office, where he belongs, once played an armed bank robber disguised as a clown. When the bank's security guard asked him, "What the hell kind of clown are you?" Murray replied, "The crying-on-the-inside kind, I guess." The Boys Are Back is a crying-on-the-inside sort of movie, based on Simon Carr's memoir. "Joe Warr" (Clive Owen) seemingly has it all--a good marriage, a job as a top-level newspaper sportswriter, a young son and an off-the-road bungalow not too far from the beach in south Australia. Then, at a party, his wife (Laura Fraser) falls into a faint and thus into a short but credibly harrowing bout with cancer. (The scene of her, demented from chemo, trying to make sandwiches for her child in the middle of the night, is maybe the film's best.)
After her death, Joe holds away intruders and decides to try to raise his young son Artie (Nichols McAnulty) by himself, eventually sending for his other son, Harry (George MacKay), from a British boarding school. Out of grief, distraction and compassion, Joe decides to let his kids run wild--a "just say yes" policy that manifests itself with bike riding in the house, pizza in bed and chickens strutting indoors. This carrying on evokes the disapproval of Bob's mother-in-law, an equestrian type.
Thirteen years later, after various features and concert movies, director Scott Hicks is still best known for Shine. Hicks can capture a dreamy, impressionistic moment, such as the opening scene of Bob letting his son ride on the hood of his truck as he drives down the beach--one of those sun-dazed hazy incidents that are usually accompanied on the soundtrack by the twinkling of ethereal chimes.
In exchange for government financing, the Australian film industry tries to show off the continent to attract visitors. Hicks makes the dry golden hills of south Australia shine, and we see the grapevines and the endless fine beaches. In one scene, the picturesque is tinged with anxiety: Harry wakes suddenly to the cries of hundreds of antipodean birds and, looking out the bedroom window, he sees kangaroos grazing in the yard, like deer.
Despite this likable travelogue, The Boys Are Back tends to lay everything out--complete with regular appearances by the wife's ghost. Trouble comes when Bob has to go to the city for work, leaving his sons alone. A too-wild party trashes the house; Hicks stages it like a 16-year-old's hard-to-believe story of how it all happened, through absolutely no fault of his own: "All of a sudden, these people showed up in cars. ..."
The film can't escape the sitcom mawkishness of the premise, no matter how much restrained sensitivity Owen radiates. Not many actors can balance the noble and the earthly--the miscast Owen can, but Bob Warr shouldn't have been played that way, with such choked nobility. (For what it's worth, the real Carr looks like a real journalist: a celebrity kind, a debauched version of Johnny Carson.) I could have submitted to this film's relentless invitation to weep if the bereaved dad had looked like he was having a little fun with his clowning.
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