Daddy of the Year
Clive Owen plays a father who doesn't know best, but he's learning
This gorgeous movie opens on an Australian beach. The driver of the Bronco-type truck speeding along the sand smiles and yells back soothing words to the folks on the beach screaming at him to get off, that it's unsafe. But other vehicles pass so what's the damage? The camera pulls back and you see the driver's 8-year-old son sitting on the hood, leaning on the windshield, and hanging on by the wipers. They're both laughing as the truck drives through the water's break.
No, The Boys Are Back--directed by Shine's Scott Hicks and based on Simon Carr's memoir--is nothing like the "bad daddy" blogs of late, and the laughs this scene earned seemed to come from a level of discomfort. This opening moment is only the first of many in a dark comedy where mind and limb feel precariously held together, so much so that to call it a comedy doesn't feel entirely accurate.
Joe Warr (Clive Owen) is the dad in question, a man whose loved wife Katy (dark-eyed beauty Laura Fraser) succumbs to an aggressive cancer that kills her quickly. She leaves behind Joe, a traveling sports writer moored by grief, and their son Artie (Nicholas McAnulty). Joe's first instinct is to uproot both of them and take a road trip: He doesn't know his son very well.
Raising him fell to the woman who did it so well, along with creating the sort of outback farmhouse that Anthropologie tries to sell. You see a few domestic scenes before the mom is torn away, but it's enough to know that she filled the glass jars with fresh flowers, the fridge with fancy cheeses, and a bowl on the counter with lemons. With all of that gone, it's not hard to see why the two leave "structure" behind, even as Joe's mother-in-law (Alexandra Schepisi) strongly advises that's what the boy needs. But what comfort in structure when the foundation is gone?
Joe drinks too much and allows Artie to be as playful and reckless as he wants--throwing water balloons, wearing a cape for a shirt, jumping from a ledge into a bathtub of bubbles--which isn't such a bad coping mechanism/parenting strategy for a father who doesn't know what he's doing. Joe had little practice with his first wife and the son that he left when he got Katy pregnant. Harry (George MacKay) is now 16--he was the age Artie is now when Joe and his mom divorced. When Joe calls his ex-wife to deliver the sad news, it's apparent his job of parenting Harry ended long ago.
Joe is guilted into taking Harry for the summer, doubling his fathering cluelessness. Shy and sensitive, Harry refuses the pillow fights as he tries to find his way into Joe and Artie's messy lives. Laura (the luminous Emma Booth), a single mom from Artie's school, begins to help Joe out, but she eventually dodges being enfolded into the trio, fortunately halting the movie's path to romantic-comedy land.
Owen falls into this character so deep the lines on his face match his eyes' ability to convey emotion. The typically stoic actor is more than able to handle this role demanding devastating loss, which he spices with bursts of childlike energy and displays of the sly wit of a very clever writer. The performance is as heartbreaking as the lush and melancholy soundtrack by Sigur Ros and the vast Australian landscapes.
A moment of cinematic drama near the end may satisfy viewers laughing nervously, but it's a cheap trick that this drama about a husband's loss becoming a father's discovery doesn't need. The precarious times won't end for these three guys charting their own course, but they'll be alright.