He can brood like nobody’s business (Closer, Children of Men) and kill with impunity (The International, Shoot ‘Em Up), but Clive Owen cuts bone-deep as sportswriter Joe Warr, the widowed dad of two sons in The Boys Are Back, based on a 2000 memoir by Simon Carr. OK, it sounds like a tear-jerker, and sometimes it drifts dangerously close. But Owen, in a heartfelt, award-caliber performance, never goes soft. It’s his core of toughness that makes the movie so funny, touching and vital.
Joe had split from his first wife and son in England to run off to Australia with the woman he loved. When cancer ends her life, Joe must raise their six-year-old son, Artie (Nicholas McAnulty), and forge a relationship with Harry (George MacKay), the resentful teen he left behind. For grief-stricken Joe, it’s a messy business bringing his sons together. Props to Owen for refusing to stoop to sitcom fluff. Joe’s “Just Say Yes” approach to single parenting could be described as semiferal, especially when he stupidly and near tragically leaves the boys home alone while he covers the Australian Open. McAnulty and MacKay work wonders as boys who really don’t know their father or each other. But Aussie director Scott Hicks, doing his best work since 1996’s Oscar-nominated Shine, lets the story play out in Owen’s expressive, haunted eyes. This movie will take a piece out of you.