- The Washington Times - Friday, October 2, 2009

Clive Owen isn’t exactly known as a softie.

From the very first film in which he made a splash — 1998’s “Croupier” — he’s been the rugged face of a very attractive sort of British toughness. He was a smooth and surprising bank robber in Spike Lee’s “Inside Man” and a single-minded seeker of justice in Mike Hodges’ “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.” His Oscar nomination came for playing the potty-mouthed doctor provoked into viciousness in “Closer.”

So “The Boys Are Back” is a departure for the man once thought to be the front-runner to play the suave but lethal James Bond. In this touching film — saved from the maudlin by Mr. Owen’s punch — the actor is at his most lost and vulnerable.

“Inspired by” a memoir by London Independent columnist Simon Carr, “Boys” follows Joe Warr as he navigates the tricky terrain of single fatherhood in Australia. The sportswriter spent most of his young son’s life traveling for work, but he becomes the sole caregiver when his beloved wife, Katy (Laura Fraser) dies.

Artie (Nicholas McAnulty, in a striking debut) first seems to take his mother’s death in stride. But it’s soon clear he’s just as heartbroken as his father, whom he tells he wants to die so he can be with his mother. Seeing the crestfallen look on the man’s face, he reassures his father with a startling maturity: “Don’t worry, Daddy. I’ll stay down here with you for now.”

Joe’s already-full hands are soon fuller. He left a wife and son for the pregnant Katy, and that boy picks this difficult time to visit from England to get reacquainted with his father. The teenage Harry (George MacKay, also a talented young actor) is tough to get to know — and isn’t sure the freewheeling household is the place for him.

You see, Joe runs the kind of home you’d expect a man who just lost his wife to run. “Think of the seven dwarves before Snow White showed up,” he tells an attractive single mother, Laura (Emma Booth). It’s not just laziness, though; Joe’s mantra is “just say yes” — he can’t bear to say no to a boy who has just lost his mother.

So the trio stage water-balloon fights inside the house, and Joe lets the kids ride their bicycles there, too. It seems a glorious mess — until a work crisis brings this unconventional home to a head.

Scott Hicks, Oscar-nominated for “Shine,” is back in top form after the lackluster “No Reservations.” There are loving shots of his native Australia, but more affectionate still is the care he takes with his characters.

Allan Cubitt has taken Mr. Carr’s episodic memoir and made it a moving drama, one that’s thoughtful about the difficulties of love. Both boys share the difficult chemistry with Mr. Owen that we’d expect from father and sons. Mr. Owen, in his first film as an executive producer, gamely shows a new side of himself — much like the adventurous single father he charmingly portrays.

★★★

TITLE: “The Boys Are Back”

RATING: PG-13 (some sexual language and thematic elements)

CREDITS: Directed by Scott Hicks. Written by Allan Cubitt based on the memoir “The Boys Are Back in Town” by Simon Carr.

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

WEB SITE: boysarebackmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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