Boys on the Boat, The



Main Cast: Joel Edgerton, Callum Turner

Director: George Clooney

Hello all my lovely fans out there.  I’m still ensconced at the Ritz-Carleton in New York and still pounding the pavement up and down the Great White Way looking for a property to properly reintroduce me to New York theater audiences. Nothing has quite come to full fruition yet but I have had a number of promising ‘Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You’ meetings with production staff.  I also spent a lovely afternoon at The Museum of Broadway posing for selfies with all of my fans (mainly a busload of tourists from Omaha in town for a harbor tour and discount tickets to the revival of Chicago).  I was hoping to make that a regular gig but management and I could not come to terms on the number of linear shelf feet I would need to stock and sell MNM collector dollars, VickiWear fashions, and other fine quality consumer products. Their loss.

My time here has given me the opportunity to explore any number of fine ethnic cuisines.  I am going to have to add another thirty minutes on my morning tap workouts to make up for all of this marvelous food or I’m going to go up a dress size and that would be an absolute disaster as nothing in my extensive wardrobe would fit properly and so much of my image is dependent on my appearing before the public in iconic fashions. 

They were so entranced they forgot to snap the pictures!

I did snag an invitation to the Met Gala a few weeks ago and the vintage Mary Quant I wore with the day-glo daisy accoutrements really jazzed up the arrival ceremonies.  Something must have happened to the paparazzi cameras though as I was unable to find any good photographs of me online on any of the usual fashion or celebrity websites. My favorite of my newly discovered eateries is a little Haitian-Creole hole in the wall that has the most divine fried pork and Happy Hour two for one Haitian Flyer cocktails.  I’m becoming something of a regular in a corner booth.

Tonight, after two rounds of two for one cocktails and a pleasant conversation with my server regarding the rich history of Hispaniola and its current tragedies, I tottered back to the hotel and decided that a film was in order.  My choice was last Christmas’s prestige release, The Boys in the Boat, George Clooney’s adaptation of Daniel James Brown’s book about the 1936 University of Washington rowing team and their trip to the Berlin Olympics where they brought home the gold medal for 8 man rowing, preventing a German clean sweep of the rowing events, much to Hitler’s chagrin. Having spent a good deal of time in Seattle, done a little rowing in my day, and knowing a few members of shell builder George Pocock’s family socially, I decided it might make an interesting evening in so I settled in to watch.

The Boys in the Boat follows the story of Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), an engineering student at the University of Washington in the depths of the depression.  He’s living in his car, eating at soup kitchens, and trying to figure out how to come up with the tuition for the semester that’s shortly due.  His buddy Roger Morris (Sam Strike) has heard that the U of W crew team is recruiting new rowers and, if you make the team, it comes with a dorm room, meals and a stipend.  The two decide to try out and (surprise surprise) make the JV squad.  Coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton) is coming off a disappointing season and really needs a win. 

More than bragging rights are at stake, the winning team will become the U.S. entry in the Olympic Games slated to be held in Berlin.   We meet the other boys in the boat, all working class kids with similar back stories expected to best the teams from elite Ivy League schools where boys have been sculling since childhood. Most of them are never developed beyond background beefcake necessary to fill out the eight places in an eight man shell but the arrogant coxswain (Luke Slattery) and gentle giant Don Hume (Jack Mulhern) do make some impression.

The Boys in the Boat takes a paint by numbers approach to the material and hits all of the usual plot points of the underdog-triumphs-in-sports Hollywood formula.  Montage of training exercise, check.  Hero nearly giving up until coach and mentor, the grandfatherly George Pocock who builds the racing shells (Peter Guinness) convinces him otherwise, check. Serious girlfriend for the lead who helps buck him up and discover his potential, check. Underdogs bond together as a team and unexpectedly climb the ladder together, check.  Last minute seemingly unsurmountable obstacle that will prevent them traveling to the Olympics, check. Near disasters at the time of the championship race that nearly destroy the chance at glory, check. 

And this is the film’s tragic flaw.  We’ve seen this all too many times before in movies from Rocky to Rudy.  What made the book compelling and the story worth telling was the sociopolitical moment of the mid-1930s.  Where common people, who were severely damaged by the depression, outdid the privileged classes who were much more insulated from the economic effects and beat them at their own game.  And then went on to beat the Germans under Hitler’s nose as a metaphor for the conflict that was shortly to engulf the world. 

As a filmmaker, George Clooney seems to eschew the sharper and more political edges of the material.  He pays lip service to it  (Jesse Owens appears in a brief cameo in a throwaway scene) but refuses to really go down the road to examine all of the issues of class and politics that are converging in what is basically just a boat race.  It really needed a sharper director with better political instincts, although Mark L. Smith’s screenplay doesn’t give him a lot of help.  It doesn’t really give the actors all that much to work with and so they mainly come across as archetypes rather than as living, breathing complex humans. Joel Edgerton and Callum Turner, in the principal roles, are fine, but I couldn’t really tell you all that much about who they were or what made them tick after the film was over.  The pacing is also a bit turgid, having that Oscar Bait slowness bestowed on important movies and which mainly has me checking my watch to see how much longer we have to go.

The film was made primarily in Great Britain with a British cast (doing reasonable American accents) but no amount of bad matte paintings of the Montlake bridge in the background will ever convince a viewer familiar with Seattle that they are rowing on Lake Washington or anywhere near the U of W campus.  The bodies of water have the wrong shape and the banks are lined with the wrong vegetation. (It was mainly filmed around the Cotswolds with local British rowing teams playing the competition).  The actors cast as the boys in the boat had never rowed before and underwent months of training to be believable as a team working together as one.  Clooney shot most of the film in sequence so that the team would plausibly get better and better with each race as they became more and more experienced at working together. 

The Boys in the Boat isn’t bad.  It just isn’t good.  It takes itself too seriously, refuses to rise above its cliches, and just doesn’t engage the viewer the way that would be necessary for it to truly succeed.  It does have some reasonable performances and the overall story is compelling and worth spending a few hours with if it’s new to you.

Unappetizing food. Many crunches.  Smoothly sanded wood grain. Man in girl’s dorm. Gratuitous Alec Newman. Sightseeing train. Unexpected musical talent. Rapid fund raising. Photo finish.

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