Reports from this year's Toronto Film Festival suggested that The Boys Are Back was director Scott Hicks's best film since his Oscar-nominated debut, Shine (1996). And a harsh commentator might say that that wouldn't be difficult given that in the 13 years since, Hicks has become somewhat of a director-for-hire in Hollywood: Snow Falling on Cedars, Hearts In Atlantis and No Reservations all stylish but rather soulless filmmaking exercises.
In fact, Hicks took on No Reservations, a remake of a German film starring Aaron Eckhart and Catherine Zeta-Jones, when Clive Owen's unavailability for The Boys Are Back delayed its production. But Hicks obviously wanted to do this film, and so, too, Owen since they both came back to the project. One thinks the lure of not only returning to film in Australia but in his native South Australia must have been a strong motivator for Hicks. For Owen, I'm guessing it was the chance to break out of his recent run of reluctant anti-hero roles, unleash some of that Brit charm, which he used to good effect earlier this year in Duplicity, and maybe even emote a little.
Owen plays Joe Warr, a sportswriter constantly on assignment who is forced into the role of sole parent when his wife (his second whom he 'made pregnant' while still married to his first) dies of cancer. Still grieving, Joe decides the best way to parent his young son, Artie (Nicholas McAnulty), is with as little discipline or rules as possible. Their home soon becomes dubbed 'hog heaven' as dishes and washing pile up and a “if it feels good, do it” philosophy prevails, much to the chagrin of friends and relatives.
In to this environment drops Joe's older son Harry (George MacKay, looking for all the world like the understudy to a young Ron Weasley) from his first marriage, who takes to hog heaven and his little brother but is still smarting from the belief that his father abandoned him in England, emotions which Joe seems disinterested or incapable of acknowledging. For Joe himself is just a big kid, doing only what he wants and what he feels is right for him. His laissez faire attitude may make him a fun dad but Joe is a lousy parent, not that the film is too eager to call a spade a spade.
Inspired by rather than based on a true story, The Boys Are Back really doesn't go anywhere or have all that much to say. It's not a bad film (the preview audience I saw it with certainly enjoyed it) but one can imagine that the main reason for it getting the greenlight was based principally on the involvement of Clive Owen. It will certainly ensure more box office here, and overseas, than had an Australian actor taken the lead role.
That may sound like cultural cringe but it's not. In a great year for Oz films, The Boys Are Back, much like its protagonist Joe, is well intentioned but ill-equipped to get the job done.