All tearjerkers are not created equal. This is a point too rarely acknowledged. When it comes to pocket-sized tragedies, those tidy doses of Hollywood-friendly catharsis, it tends to be an open and shut case for most folks: either you’re in the mood for a good cry or that sappy shit just ain’t for you. As neatly demonstrated by the unfair maligning of this summer’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, critics are often no better than regular joes at distinguishing pure pap from the genuinely affecting melodrama. (Difference is, critics are prone to knee-jerk dismissals of the whole genre, whereas undiscriminating viewers will waste their waterworks on the most transparent of four-hankie con jobs.) But there is a hierarchy to these Feel Sad entertainments. It’s why this critic can stone-face stare as Meryl coughs and shivers and withers her way through shameless award porn like the ironically titled One True Thing. Conversely, it’s also why when Paddy Constantine chokes out a goodbye to his dead son in the borderline-maudlin In America, I’m choking back my own hot mess right along with him. The key is sincerity — do these melancholic crowd-pleasers earn their tears honest or do they cheat their way into your heart? Course, with the right salesperson, that distinction between bathos and pathos is almost imperceptible.
Even the most cloying of Hallmark sentiments can sound like poetic gospel when uttered with enough actorly conviction. To that end, director Scott Hicks pulls off something of a coup in The Boys Are Back, casting Clive Owen, the tall, dark, and handsome star of Closer and Duplicity, as a frazzled father and grieving husband. Owen, whose intrinsically masculine charm lies somewhere near the intersection of brainy and brawny, wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice to headline an awards season heart-tugger. He just doesn’t really do sensitive. His specialty lies in investing cocksure playboys with dimensional personalities. These rouges and ruffians play their cards close to the chest, and while you can always see the wheels turning behind their eyes, you have to look much closer to catch hints of what they’re actually feeling. Yet it’s that reluctance to over-emote, that admirable aversion to broad gestures and crocodile tears, that makes the Brit actor’s performance here so overwhelmingly affective — even if, alas, his valiant efforts outpace the film’s. Owen does get one good cry in, but he does it brief and long-distance. On the line with estranged teenage son Harry (George MacKay), the boy he abandoned years ago when he married his now-deceased second wife, Owen’s heartbroken family man loses his composure. It’s a moment of naked anguish, one that recalls the actor’s woodland breakdown in Children of Men (still his best performance). We’re seeing this character openly grieve for the first time… and it’s only for a few seconds, after which he immediately withdraws into a state of numb and collected solemnity.
Based on a best-selling memoir by Simon Carr, The Boys Are Back fleetingly gushes with this bracing brand of exposed-nerve sentimentality. His wife having just succumbed to cancer, Owen’s jet-setting journalist (Joe Warr, the movie lazily renames him) is forced to settle down, to sort out his own heavy heart while struggling to raise his younger, pre-adolescent son (Nicholas McAnulty). In way over his head, Joe opts for the path of least resistance, more or less imposing a “no discipline” policy within his soon-to-be-squalid household. (“Just say yes” is his New Age-y parenting mantra.) Is it a lack of rules and structure that the motherless boy needs? Or is this faux-idyllic lifestyle a mutually unhealthy form of grief management? As far as full-on, unapologetic male weepies go, “The Boys Are Back” isn’t half bad. Actually, scratch that: it is half bad, almost by diametric design. Like this year’s indie break-up fable 500 Days of Summer, Hicks’s film alternates rather evenly between moments of profound emotional truth and instances of pure, only-in-the-movies contrivance. The first hour, concerned as it is with loss and healing and the dynamics of a fractured family unit, is pleasingly unstructured, a bit formless even. Hicks contents himself with eavesdropping, gently observing the widower and his son whose coping mechanisms are superficially different but nearly identical in function. (Both man and boy are prone to misdirected temper tantrums, as well as bouts of physical and emotional paralysis.) It’s when Harry enters the picture — right on schedule, middle of act two — that The Boys Are Back begins to sand down its rough edges, to bend its big, complicated feelings into a more manageable framework. Plot points sag and droop with clichés, and superfluous characters (the blonde would-be love interest, the demanding boss) crowd the edges of the narrative. The movie even ends with one of those Race to the Airport sequences, here relocated to the more modest milieu of a London train station. Conventional structuring is the great bugaboo of this particular tearjerker, which starts like one of the good (RE: honest) ones before descending into life-affirming schmaltz.
For his part, Hicks drenches everything in a dewy romantic glow, relishing each things-are-getting-better montage, counting on choice soundtrack cuts to do the heavy lifting. (Icelandic art-rock outfit Sigur Ros supply the orchestral swell, which is a bit like cheating, wouldn’t you say?) Yet standing unfazed by the end-credits crawl is our dashing, cast-against-type leading man, whose jagged gravitas aren’t quite as easy to smooth out. Whether fumbling through the feats of fatherhood or carrying on overwritten convos with the chatty specter of his dead wife, the actor finds ways both big and small to paint a person at the center of this mawkish mess. And no amount of diminishing dramatic returns can erase the poignancy of the film’s strongest image: Owen in bed, cradling his dying wife, restlessly waiting for her last intake of air. The man earns our tears, even when the movie around him doesn’t.