At The Movies With Josh: Boys in the Boat

Michael Shannon did a rowing movie a few years ago (Heart of Champions) and in reviewing that I said this is a sport that just doesn’t lend itself to riveting cinema. I also said that with the volleyball story a few years before that (The Miracle Season with Helen Hunt). And “Boys in the Boat,” just like “The Miracle Season” are true stories. It’s just a shame that lately, George Clooney behind the camera, is content to give us cookie-cutter, cliched, and dull films. It felt like he was mailing it in.

This is the story about nine rowers at the University of Washington in the mid-1930s. They’re the JV squad that’s not expected to do much.

The U.S. is in the midst of the Great Depression, and we see two of the guys joining crew simply because it provides a place to live and college tuition (one is living in his car while going to school).

The coach (played by the always reliable Joel Edgerton) can be tough, and since the university hasn’t had much success, he’s being threatened with his job. He had dreams of bringing a squad to the Olympics someday, but at this point he’ll settle for some decent equipment and a few wins against the Ivy League schools that usually trounce him. 

My old high school principal, who I believe has grandsons on crew at the collegiate level, said the book by Daniel James Brown was terrific. This film, written by Mark L. Smith, isn’t. It just doesn’t give us any conflict. And since we’ve all seen sports films before, it’s easy to predict where this group of rag-tag underdogs will end up. Other than the dude living in his car (Joe Rantz, played by Callum Turner) and getting a girlfriend (which leads to cliche scenes like him sneaking out her dorm window)...we learn little about the other guys. Instead we get this cheesy side story with a Mr. Miyagi type who builds the boats, imparting his wisdom to the young man while they sand the shells of boats.

The film has a lot of montages, which in most movies, don’t work (I was impressed with how they did them recently in “Saltburn” though). We see montages of new guys training to make the team, or at practice once they do. And again, it’s not a sport that’s exciting to watch. Learning more about the nuances that make a great team would’ve been interesting. Now, it was interesting when the coxswain (a word that I hate to admit, always makes me giggle like I’m Beavis or Butthead) from varsity gets demoted, and a warning about how to guide the team properly. It would have been informative for us to find out what exactly they do as they sit at the front of the boat barking orders at the guys doing all the hard work with the oars. 

The coxswain is played by Luke Slattery. It would’ve been nice if he was given a bit more to do.

The love interest is played by Hadley Robinson (Little Women). It’s hard to buy a woman in 1936 being in the engineering program, or being as flirty as she was. You’ll get close-ups of her cheering them on, or close-ups of the coach looking concerned, and even Adolf Hitler (it’s probably not a spoiler alert that this team did make it to the Olympics in Berlin). The scene with Jesse Owens was weak, and I can guarantee the rowing team was probably nowhere near him at that Olympics. And that made me think – Jesse Owens winning gold there is one of the biggest accomplishments in American sports history. The last movie on him, Race (from 2016) was a tad disappointing (but you can see Jason Sudekis as a coach before he became Ted Lasso); but I’d rather see a new movie made on Owens every five years, then another unexciting sports film.

There were just too many missteps in this. For example, watching the JV team pouting as the varsity was being praised about something. I played JV and varsity basketball in high school, and we were all rooting for each other (except during try-outs). JV would hardly be upset if the varsity team were saluted for an accomplishment. 

Another scene involving a dad didn’t quite work.

There was a vomit scene, because as I’ve been tracking, over 90% of all movies have to have one.

There were a few funny lines (nothing like hearing the coxswain saying that their rowing is making his “balls vibrate”). Yet most of the dialogue was bad. For example, on one late night row with the couple, she tells him, “You’ll be famous someday and forget about me.”

French composer Alexandre Desplat is one of the best in the business (and has worked with Clooney before), but his maudlin strings don’t work here, and there’s too much score going on. I don’t want the music to try to manipulate me into how I should be feeling.

For a much better sports movie that has an athlete leaning into athletes to get him through the Great Depression, watch “Cinderella Man.” (boxing is always exciting on screen; rowing, not so much)

2 stars out of 5.

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