The Boys in the Boat (2023, dir. George Clooney)

by | Jan 12, 2024

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 124 mins

UK Distributor: Warner Bros

UK Release Date: 12 January 2024

WHO’S IN THE BOYS IN THE BOAT?

Callum Turner, Joel Edgerton, Jack Mulhern, Sam Strike, Alec Newman, Peter Guinness, Luke Slattery, Thomas Elms, Tom Varey, Bruce Herbelin-Earle, Wil Coban, Hadley Robinson, Courtney Henggler, James Wolk, Chris Diamantopoulos

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

George Clooney (director, producer), Mark L. Smith (writer), Grant Heslov (producer), Alexandre Desplat (composer), Martin Ruhe (cinematographer), Tanya Swerling (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In the 1930s, the University of Washington rowing team speeds to victory…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THE BOYS IN THE BOAT?

George Clooney’s directorial style can be best described as “comfortably old-fashioned”. One only needs to look at some of the actor-turned-filmmaker’s past directing gigs like The Monuments Men, Leatherheads, Suburbicon and The Tender Bar to get a feel for his light-hearted and traditional approach, which carries a certain appreciation for the mostly inoffensive studio efforts of the 50s, 60s, or even as early as the 40s. It’s debatable whether such an old-school style can resonate with larger audiences in today’s more advanced world, but predominantly Clooney’s films seem just fine with being nostalgic audience hits.

His latest feature, The Boys in the Boat, is arguably a perfect example of what “comfortably old-fashioned” looks like. Drowning in traditional biopic and sports movie conventions, yet unapologetically earnest in its execution, it is a film that easily could have existed in any one of those aforementioned time periods but is still completely serviceable in 2024 as a harmless little crowd-pleaser.

Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Daniel James Brown and adapted by screenwriter Mark L. Smith, The Boys in the Boat takes place in 1936, as the Great Depression looms over the nation, and as University of Washington student Joe Rantz (Callum Turner) is living in his car, using newspapers to cover over holes in his shoes, and struggling to afford tuition. Desperate for work, he ends up applying for – and is eventually accepted into – the university’s rowing team, where he and seven other rowers train and practise under the watch of their coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton), and soon begin functioning as a mighty unit in time to row toward success at several regattas across the country. Soon, the University of Washington team is invited to compete at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where they may or may not (depending on how well you know your history) replicate their success on the international stage.

This film has all the hallmarks of a corny sports biopic from the mid-to-late 50s, packed with numerous tropes regarding the team’s unlikely rise in the ranks, their gruff coach’s growing fondness for them, smarmy rivals who have money and connections on their side, scenes of close friends and relatives listening to the competition play out on the radio, and even a main love interest whose entire life and personality appears to revolve around the central protagonist. It’s all very predictable, not to mention cheesy in places, but neither Clooney nor Smith seem too bothered by any of that. Instead, they embrace the inoffensiveness of it all, without going the self-aware postmodern route and just letting the tropes play out exactly as they’re meant to, which in a way adds a level of charm to both Smith’s screenplay and especially Clooney’s direction, both ending up being unashamedly straightforward and unshowy in their portrayal of these events.

It is very competently made, with fine editing and some often rather striking cinematography by Martin Ruhe, while Clooney lends his goofball personality to many light-hearted moments featuring some members of the rowing team during their downtime. Hell, there’s even a moment during the climax that does the familiar “crowd standing and cheering in awe” trope that involves a certain leading figure in 1930s Germany, and it’s played with such a straight face that one can’t help but giggle a little, for it only could have come from a filmmaker who’s known for having such a playful screen persona. Only a few times does the filmmaking feel a bit off, particularly a wraparound segment involving an older version of a main character that screams like it was hastily added during reshoots, while also containing some noticeable ADR that even makes it unintentionally funny.

There are other times when you feel that Clooney could have benefitted from a more generous script, which sees Smith give the lion’s share of the drama to Callum Turner’s Joe Rantz while practically ignoring all the other members of this eight-person team. It’s easy to understand why this was applied – after all, a film about eight individual characters would have turned chaotic very quickly – but it means that there’s very little focus on the dynamic between the team itself, which should be fundamental to its success as a whole. Plus, the character Rantz is a pretty bland main protagonist, with perhaps the least remarkable arc in the film and a dull personality, which prevents actor Callum Turner from sharing any real chemistry between many of his co-stars, including his love interest played by Hadley Robinson (who, incidentally, also co-stars in Anyone But You, a film that has a far stronger understanding of what makes two romantic leads spark better than this prestigious effort).

It’s corny, cheesy, and conventional as hell, but George Clooney would not have The Boys in the Boat any other way, resulting in a film that is the very definition of “comfortably old-fashioned”.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Boys in the Boat is a deeply conventional, yet unashamedly earnest, sports biopic about the University of Washington rowing team that sees director George Clooney bring his competent and comfortably old-fashioned style to a traditional narrative that isn’t always as generous.

Three out of five stars

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