The Boys in the Boat (2023)
Since crossing over from television stardom to feature films nearly thirty years ago, George Clooney has endured as a respected leading man with a knack for making movies of substance. Lately, though, Clooney seems to prefer to stay behind the camera rather than venturing in front of it. Since 2017, the “ER” alumnus has starred in just two films: last year’s picturesque yet routine romantic comedy Ticket to Paradise and Netflix’s COVID-crippled 2020 sci-fi odyssey The Midnight Sky. Clooney also directed the latter, marking his seventh feature in that capacity.
Suggesting his side gig has become his principal calling, Clooney brings his directing count up to nine with the Christmas Day theatrical release of The Boys in the Boat. This drama tells the true story of the University of Washington’s junior varsity men’s rowing team, which went from underprivileged collegiate underdogs to gold medalists at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
I guess I just gave away the ending, but so do most synopses of a film that is thoroughly in the tradition of Chariots of Fire, Hoosiers, and Seabiscuit: sports movies set in the past that are intended to inspire. The Boys is formulaic, corny, and predictable. It’s also well-made and sure to tickle those who fondly recall the days when such sincere movies drew critical acclaim and major awards. Boys is probably a few decades late to win either of those things, but it will win the hearts of those who believe today’s movies are too crude and dark, those who crave unobjectionable family movies fit for those who have outgrown religious vegetables and singing princesses.
Basically, Clooney’s latest should appeal most to those most at odds with his outspoken liberal politics, which is an interesting twist in a directing career that began with 2002’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and has included the Oscar-nominated Good Night, and Good Luck. and The Ides of March.
Boys finds an accessible approach to a sport long associated with Ivy Leaguers, focusing on two U of W engineering students who are struggling to make ends meet. The orphaned/parentally abandoned blonde Joe Rantz (Callum Turner of J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts franchise) emerges as our protagonist, while his cat-hating chum Roger (Sam Strike) stands as mild comic relief. The two are desperate for income, especially Joe, who, unable to pay tuition, will otherwise be forced to drop out. The pals think their school’s rowing team may be the answer to their problems. If they make the team, they’re guaranteed housing and a paying job as well.
The odds, however, are not in the boys’ favor. They’re competing against dozens of their classmates for just eight spots on the team. The team’s seasoned coach (Joel Edgerton) prepares them for weeks of physically and mentally grueling tryouts, which play out with hand blisters, hobbles, and classroom snores. Nevertheless, our heroes make the cut. It’s all up from there, as the Huskies’ 8-man JV crew turns heads and eventually earns a spot in the Berlin Olympics, where Nazi swastika flags are everywhere.
There are few surprises here. Screenwriter Mark L. Smith (The Revenant, Midnight Sky, Vacancy, Overlord) adapts Daniel James Brown’s bestselling 2013 book of the same name. I can only assume Smith remains faithful to the facts, since the biggest leap we’re asked to take is that Joe is actively pursued by his fourth grade crush and present-day classmate, Joyce (Hadley Robinson), a squeaky clean All-American blonde who nearly gets in trouble for sneaking Joe into her female-only dorm (where — gasp! — she has him turn around so she can change clothes).
In this chaste romance and all other matters, The Boys takes a misty-eyed, nostalgic approach, allowing no modern politics or cynicism to creep into the proceedings for context or added depth. This is a movie that would meet the rigorous Hayes Code of production standards established in 1934 if not for some mild, recurring, possibly anachronistic profanity. To call this Clooney’s least edgy effort is an understatement. The Boys might just be the least edgy live-action movie of 2023.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, but it inevitably primes the movie to be most appreciated by older, more conservative audiences who have largely given up on Hollywood prurience, the kind who oppose Clooney’s political views and the way he has often conveyed them. If this old-fashioned production fails to win over these moviegoers this Christmas, surely we’ll find some celebrating its box office failings as a direct result of Clooney’s liberal sins.
The Boys is not a significant step back for Clooney creatively. It’s plenty polished and cinematic throughout. Clooney is smart enough to surround himself with experienced and talented people, including cinematographer Martin Ruhe and editor Tanya Swerling, both of whom collaborated with him on his last film as director, 2021’s comparably enjoyable The Tender Bar. But Boys is not hard-hitting or cutting-edge in the slightest, qualities you’ve come to expect from Clooney’s more consistently stellar work in front of the camera, like the fantastic and contemporary dramas Up in the Air and Michael Clayton.
Modern counterparts to this film are hard to identify. The most kindred production I can think of is Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, a PG-13 2014 drama about Louis Zamperini, the 1936 US Olympic distance runner who endured torture at four Japanese prisoner of war camps. While Unbroken mostly struck out in awards season, settling for three technical nominations at the Oscars, it did gross a formidable $116 million domestically, enough to inspire a little-known 2018 sequel. Nearly a decade later, the box office is far harsher and less forgiving. Theatrical underperformance is often a foregone conclusion, a concession to awards eligibility requirements and traditional consumption methods that quickly gives way to widespread streaming service viewership.
Boys has been in development since 2011, when the film adaptation rights were preemptively acquired by — brace yourself — The Weinstein Company. Kenneth Branagh was originally attached to direct and that made for a more obvious pairing of filmmaker and material. Just about anyone old enough to hold vivid memories of the ’36 Olympics has probably passed away in the twelve years this took to make it to the screen.
Now in Theaters
Directed by George Clooney
Old-Timey Sports Dramas
DVDizzy Top Stories
- The Golden Globes are Sunday. Read up on the nominated films: Oppenheimer, Barbie, The Holdovers, Saltburn, Across the Spider-Verse.
- Now in theaters: The Boys in the Boat, Wonka, Wish, Napoleon, Hunger Games: Songbirds & Snakes, Trolls 3, Next Goal Wins.
- Now on home video, #1 movie of 2023: Barbie 4K reviewed.