‘The Boys Are Back’: Clive alive

September 23, 2009

It’s been 30 years since “Kramer vs. Kramer” took movie audiences by surprise with its tale of a workaholic dad forced to reorder his priorities to focus on being a caregiver (back before anyone had heard the term “caregiver”).

That film was a change of pace for Dustin Hoffman, softening an edgy image and earning him his first Oscar. Now here comes Clive Owen in Scott Hicks’ “The Boys Are Back,” a reworking of similar themes in a way that is just as telling and just as affecting.

Indeed, Owen hasn’t played this kind of role before, at least not since he first popped up on American radar in “Bent” and “Croupier” a dozen years ago. While he’s shown versatility in a variety of roles, he’s never played a character dealing with problems as normal as the ones confronting Joe Warr, the sportswriter at the center of this film, which is based on a true story.

Joe has been a hit-and-run dad, always on the go, popping in home between major sporting events that require his presence. You quickly get the impression that this was his pattern in his first marriage as well; he left England and a young son behind to run off to Australia and a second marriage, to Katy (Laura Fraser), who apparently is more forgiving of his peripatetic schedule.

But Joe’s life is upended when Katy dies, leaving him with 7-year-old Artie (Nicholas McAnulty). He’s dealing with his own grief as well as the grief of his young son – and is forced to be a full-time dad for the first time ever. His load is doubled when Harry (George MacKay), his teen-age son from his first marriage, hops a plane from England and shows up in Australia with only the barest of warnings.

So Joe must go from hands-free to hands-on and discovers just what a juggling act parenthood is. He also must cope with his younger son’s unquenchable energy and imagination, which can’t mask the loss he feels at his mother’s death. Joe’s solution: what he refers to at one point as “free-range parenting,” built around the philosophy of “just say yes.”

That means a household that borders on chaos, from clothes and toys strewn everywhere to chickens defrosting in the bathtub. Joe occasionally is chided for his unrestrained approach to parenting by his mother-in-law and by the neighbor (Emma Booth) whose daughter is in Artie’s class (and whose help – if not company – Joe often requires).

Scott Hicks’ film has its share of full-blown emotions but never confuses sentimentality for genuine feeling. Even having Katy appear to Joe in moments of stress is a device that works; it reminds us that, while kids are more obvious in the way they mourn a death, the partner who must carry on feels the loss just as acutely.

Owen brings a range to this role that he hasn’t previously had much opportunity to reveal. While part of his appeal is the strength of his silence, he can also be loose and funny – and gets the chance to show that off in this role. He plays Joe as a real guy, one with flaws but with the right impulses to work his way out of the hole in which he finds himself. It’s a full-bodied performance as a real parent, not a movie parent.

It would have been easy for “The Boys Are Back” to veer off the rails into maudlin tear-jerking. Indeed, the challenge with a film like this is to avoid exactly that. There are moments that push too far – and moments that dip into melodrama just to goose the action a little. But “The Boys Are Back” earns its emotions, thanks to strong performances and directorial restraint.

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