A widowed dad doesn't quite come to grips with his shortcomings as a parent in The Boys Are Back. This mournful melodrama serves up Clive Owen as a "free range" parent in an Aussie Kramer vs. Kramer. The movie argues that no matter how selfish or irresponsible, Dad is still the right one to raise his son.
Owen plays Tom Warr, a British ex-pat who is now a star sports columnist in Australia. His well-heeled life of tennis tournaments and swim meets is upended when his beloved wife (Laura Fraser) becomes sick and dies. An absentee dad, who cared for Mom during her final months, now must juggle a return to work with a 6-year-old son (Nicholas McAnulty) who doesn't grasp Mom's death. Dad ponders the "map of a child's mind."
His solution? Put "Just say yes" in magnet letters on the fridge and live by that. Tom serves pizza for every meal, doesn't clean house, drives down the beach with the kid riding on the hood of his Range Rover and shocks relatives with his laissez-faire approach to parenting. The consequences of that don't fully manifest themselves until his son from an earlier marriage (George MacKay) shows up, an English teen who has plainly suffered for Dad's selfishness.
Much has been changed from Simon Carr's memoir for this film, starting with the lead character's name (Simon Carr becomes Joe Warr) and the location (New Zealand becomes Australia). It's a movie of mixed messages as Tom hears what he wants to hear from his ghostly chats with his late wife — "We aren't meant to do these things (child-rearing) by ourselves." There's his permission to pursue the fetching young single mom at school (Emma Booth), whom he hits up for baby sitting.
Owen, not chasing Julia Roberts or anyone else for a change, is pleasant enough making this 100-minute argument for unconventional parenting. But director Scott Hicks (Shine) doesn't find much emotion here once Mom is dead. The conflict with the mother-in-law, who wants to raise the boy properly, is muted. Tom's self-indulgence is mostly just tolerated.
As sadly as this begins, you expect more tears, more of a moral to the story than The Boys are Back delivers. Watch it the way you'd watch Super Nanny — as in, "I may not be the best parent, but at least I'm not him."