A more nuanced battle of the sexes

‘The Boys Are Back’ (Dir: Scott Hicks; Screnplay: Simon Carr, Allan Cubbit; Screen Australia, November 2009) Twenty years ago Adrian Lyne’s film Fatal Attraction (1987) offered a reminder of Eve’s role in the destruction of earthly paradise. Women, it warned us, prey on the natural innocence of men and if you don’t watch out they will bust your balls and boil your kid’s pet rabbit alive. Widely acclaimed as ‘slick’ and ‘classy’, this was the 1980s’ clearest cinematic expression of heterosexual male fear and resentment of the object of desire. The Boys Are Back is a more thoughtful and provocative piece by far—a study in male virtue not only overcoming emotional adversity but finding fulfilment beyond the civilizing grip of petticoats. Thrown in for good measure is the more predictable sub-theme that Australia is a less suffocating place than stuffy old England.

An early scene has sports journalist hero, Joe, just back in Adelaide from covering Wimbledon, smugly declining to offer his pretty little wife Katy reassurance about the dress she has chosen for a barbecue. “Tell me you love the dress,” she pleads winningly. “OK,” he banters back, “I’ll tell you I love the dress but only on the strict understanding that you know I’m not telling the truth.” There’s male integrity for you. And there’s plenty more of it to come when Katy ups and dies of cancer, leaving Joe in charge of their six year old son, Arty.

Joe’s first battle is, plausibly enough, with bereaved mother-in-law Barbara, who is over-ready to step into the breach with grandmaternal love and guidance. “This is about structure and routine and security,” she insists, while her own securely managed husband hovers meekly in the background. But Joe will have none of it. “You can’t replace your daughter with my son,” he tells her squarely, and he takes Arty off on a rollicking holiday.

Of course there are tough times when Arty’s grief spills over. Katy’s ghost appears with advice on the general lines of “Cuddle him.” Fair enough, but also a bit obvious, and it is again Joe who gets to speak the emotional truth: “It’s not me he wants, it’s you.” He hits the bottle a bit and even wonders aloud to a mate “Shouldn’t the state intervene and make sure a woman looks after children?”

But Joe copes, and on male terms. He misses “the smell of rosemary in the garden, the vase of flowers in the kitchen” but he isn’t going to try to be what he is not. Prissy housework is neglected for driving fast through a flooded gorge with Arty on his lap at the wheel and along the beach with Arty sitting on the bonnet of the car. (“Just relax!” liberated Joe calls out with Ubermensch contempt to the horrified sunbathing lobsters.)

A teenage son from a previous marriage arrives to join the household. It turns out that Harry never wanted to be in stuffy England with “my mother, who hates me.” (We see her briefly; she is an awful prig, now making a new family with another man). Dad and boys do a lot of triangular bonding involving pillow fights and footballs kicked around indoors, along with some edgier scenes that make us wonder if the emotional world will become as tattered as the house itself. But fear not; what we get in the end is vindication of Joe’s libertarian parenting aphorisms—“The more rules there are the more criminals get created” and “Our kids ask us to do a whole range of unsuitable things and we just say No; that’s the habit I’m trying to break.”

This is said to a cute and sympathetic divorced mum, Laura, who looks for a while as if she might scoop up widower Joe and help to resolve the housework issues. Although he ostensibly remains emotionally loyal to much-loved Katy, sexually lonely Joe evidently quite fancies Laura but not enough to woo her in earnest. Casual sex would doubtless be a relief for him but not good enough for her: she has apparently set her cap at a more full-blown thing and storms off in the end accusing him of “laziness and irresponsibility.” When Joe really does need Laura and mum-in-law Barbara to help him juggle boycare and a career in crisis, both women let him down badly, even spitefully, each trying to teach him a female lesson. But in the end he manages without them and their strictures (although a fetching barmaid does, we are invited to guess, supply that urgently needed casual shag.)

“So here we are,” Joe’s closing voiceover tells us, “A father and two sons surviving in a household without women, like a year-long experiment in a satellite free from earthly influences.” Free, that is, from the gravitational pull of women bringing men down to earth. It’s a celluloid riposte to Gloria Gaynor singing “I will survive.”

Not only have the lads liberated themselves, there are even signs of uptight women learning to relax: we see granny Barbara laughing for the first time as she plays indoor volleyball with Arty, using an upturned table as the net. Joe is upstairs finally packing away Katy’s wardrobe (but faithfully putting back in the closet the little black number she wore to the barbie that night.) Her ghost pops down from heaven again—for the last time, one supposes—and releases him from mourning by telling him to buy that convertible he always wanted. The credits roll as the lads drive off in it across Adelaide’s stunning Fleurlieu Peninsula.

This would be complete crap if it were less well done. The acting is competent, the script brisk, and there’s enough gender and bereavement truth in the details—at least we don’t get women boiling rabbits—to lend passing credibility to so bold a narrative of triumphant masculinity. But I’ve known widowered men and it wasn’t anything like that rosy. Nor can one help wondering how Joe would have coped if he’d been left with two little girls.

Nick Young
Kampala, March 16 2010