[16 October 2009]
The opening scene of The Boys are Back is both very lovely and a little infuriating. Joe (Clive Owen) cruises down the beach at sunset in his Land Rover, dismissively laughing off angry, scolding onlookers. A longer shot of the car reveals reason for their ire: Joe’s six-year-old son Artie (Nicholas McAnulty) is sitting on the hood, having a grand time as his father weaves the car in and out of the surf. Joe apparently thinks that his son’s happiness at this moment is worth the risk that’s obvious to the rest of us.
Flashback scenes show that father and son have recently suffered greatly. Katie (Laura Fraser), Joe’s beautiful and much loved wife and Artie’s mum, has died of cancer. Devastated by the loss, they are ill-equipped to work through their grief appropriately, Artie, because he’s so young, and Joe, well, because he’s used to having Katie around to handle things for him. Australia’s top sports writer, Joe is often on the road and has left the parenting to his wife. Now, he has to be a dad and keep their home. He’s at a complete loss.
Their grief is definitely heartbreaking and mostly quiet and lonely, save for Artie’s occasional tantrums. Much has been said, rightly, about Owen’s performance, and McAnulty is wonderful as well. But Joe’s methods are mystifying. Though he seems blissful in scenes of his past life with Katie, once she’s gone, he undoes everything about the way she managed their lives.
This process begins accidentally. Joe and Artie go on a road trip immediately after the funeral. At a hotel stop along the way, he walks into the bathroom and sees Artie jumping from the windowsill into an overflowing tub, making a huge and entertaining splashing disaster. The happiness in his son’s face sets him on a course of indulgence to the extreme. “Just say yes” is his new motto. When Harry (George McKay), his 15-year-old son from a previous marriage, comes to visit, Joe explains: no chores, no responsibilities, no rules. Children ask all sorts of unreasonable things, Joe explains, and a parent’s first instinct is to respond with no. He does just the opposite.
The result is that they live in utter squalor. Joe is unapologetic, affectionately dubbing their home “Hog Heaven.” And this is where The Boys are Back becomes frustrating. Joe defrosting a chicken in the bathtub or cooking a toy dinosaur in the microwave is an ancient plot device that started and stopped being funny with Mr. Mom. But beyond the tired inept father gag, the film’s attitude towards women is unsettling. Soon after Katie dies, Joe wonders what chance Artie has now, growing up without a mother: “Shouldn’t the state intervene,” he half-jokes, “to make sure women look after little children?” The generalization from Katie to “women” is one thing. The poor judgment he displays to make his own point is another. Little children, beware.
If we are hopeful that Joe’s experiment will result in some sort of epiphany that restores order (read: redeem “women”), we are only half-satisfied. Yes, Joe learns how to balance work, home, and family, but the self-congratulatory note ignores the fact that every mother faces this same dilemma without her spouse’s death forcing the issue. Instead, we get Joe’s proclamation that here they are, “A father and two sons, surviving in a household without women.”
This is a deeply weird assessment. It’s not clear if he’s celebrating their survival or the ostensible absence of women in the house. In fact, whenever Joe is in a jam, he turns to other women, whether it’s his mother-in-law, his friend Laura (Emma Booth), or, in the film’s least effective trick, Katie in apparition form. Throughout the film, Artie’s bedtime story is Peter Pan, which serves as a too-tidy subtext. In that opening beach scene, Joe says in voiceover, “Neverland is always an island.” This this is just what he tries to create for himself and the boys. They’re back, all right, and doing their best not to grow up.