George Clooney makes The Boys in the Boat an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser
As an actor, George Clooney has earned much acclaim in his career thanks to roles in ER, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Ocean’s Eleven, Michael Clayton, and others. As a director, the results have been decidedly mixed, ranging from the highs of the Oscar-nominated Good Night, and Good Luck to the lows of the little-seen Leatherheads.
His latest directorial effort, The Boys in the Boat, falls somewhere between those two extremes. It follows Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), a University of Washington student struggling – like many others – through the Great Depression in the 1930s. More as a way to earn money to afford to eat and stay in school, Rantz tries out for the junior varsity of the university’s rowing team, one that has a storied history.
Naturally, Rantz makes the team, joining seven others who are soon be pushing the varsity members for dominance. Coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton) is faced with a dilemma, as the JV team wins race after race against other schools, and also consistently beats the varsity team during practice. With the 1936 Olympics looming, will he give the upstarts a chance to compete for a spot in Berlin, or stick with the tried-and-true?
Working from a script by Mark L. Smith (based on the book by Daniel James Brown), Clooney turns the film into an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser, with an emphasis on old-fashioned. Some of that, of course, has to do with it being a period film, one where the male athletes are the unquestioned heroes and women like Joe’s girlfriend Joyce (Hadley Robinson) and Coach Ulbrickson’s wife Hazel (Courtney Henggeler) are there to support their men, and little else.
The film does make a few cursory attempts at giving the story extra meaning, with scenes showing just how difficult life was for many during the Depression, although Joe’s financial woes magically become non-existent once he joins the team. This lack of introspection also reveals itself late in the film when – spoiler alert! – the team makes it to the Olympics, giving Joe and a teammate a chance to talk to Jesse Owens (Jyuddah James). The moment is so brief and so overly loaded with significance that it comes off as laughable.
The film is at its best when focusing on the boat races, each of which are staged with a nice energy despite having predictable outcomes. Clooney and cinematographer Martin Ruhe use all the tricks in the book to make the races watchable, from switching back-and-forth often from the boats to the fans watching or listening on radio, to lightning fast editing showing the efforts of the rowers.
Turner, who’s been on the rise in the past decade, does well in the lead role, giving off an aw-shucks demeanor belied by his good looks and athleticism. Edgerton plays the gruff-but-lovable coach exactly as you’d hope. Both he and Turner are buoyed by their love interests, with Robinson and Henggeler making the most of their thankless roles. Character actor Peter Guinness puts in yeoman’s work as the team’s boat builder/guru.
It’s easy to see The Boys in the Boat succeeding with audiences given its semi-underdog story that follows the formula to a tee. But just because a film is effective doesn’t make it memorable; the surface-level storytelling means it shouldn't be added to the pantheon of great sports movies.
The Boys in the Boat is now playing in theaters.