Film reviews and more since 2009

The Boys in the Boat (2023) review

Dir. George Clooney

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★

Last year, I watched a movie called Heart of Champions, which revolved around a college rowing team and their hard-nosed coach, played by Michael Shannon. I mentioned how my deep affection for Shannon led me to sitting through a two-hour movie about a college rowing team. When I get out on the water, namely the Mississippi River, the last thing I want to do is work hard. That film was the most exposure to rowing I’d ever had.

Alas, I elected to watch George Clooney’s The Boys in the Boat, which was released on Christmas Day 2023 to indifferent reviews (yet still somehow legged itself to over $50 million in ticket sales at the box office). Here’s a film with a substantially larger budget than Heart of Champions, and a cast of more recognizable faces, that does even less for the niche sport. The aforementioned Michael Shannon-led drama had its own problems, but a couple shocking twists in the third act proved it had a pulse. The Boys in the Boat is a great movie for people who don’t watch very many movies.

What do I mean by that? Consider that the film takes place in 1936, firmly entrenched in the Great Depression, a favorite movie-era for middle-aged dads. Also consider that the film doesn’t bore you with overly dense character development nor any aggressive narrative zigs or zags. The Boys in the Boat is a film to which you can half-heartedly pay attention and at no point be confused nor lost by the story. It skims the water without ever penetrating its depths; like a paddle, comes up for air when the opportunity to go deeper emerges.

Based on a bestselling book by Daniel James Brown, the film revolves around the Washington Huskies rowing team and their dreams of competing in the 1936 Summer Olympics. Our window into this world is Joe Rantz (Callum Turner, who looks like someone tried to draw a blonde Barry Keoghan), a broke college student on the verge of no longer being able to afford tuition. Learning he can make money on the college’s rowing team, he signs up despite knowing that there are nine coveted seats on the vessel. Everyone else must watch from the coast.

Shocker, Joe proves to have a knack for this stuff, impressing his coach, Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton), and the rest of the team as well. He initially fends off advances from his classmate, Joyce (Hadley Robinson), but her bouncy blonde curls and relentless flirtations eventually wear him down. Fearing his team is too slow to compete in the Olympics, Ulbrickson makes a call to Bobby Moch (Luke Slattery), a headstrong coxswain who can still lead his team with the best of them.

Screenwriter Mark L. Smith (The Revenant) fails to develop anyone on this rowing team beyond archetypes. Most miserably underserved is Hadley Robinson, who is relegated to being the doe-eyed love interest who falls for Joe on the basis that she remains cognizant of his boyhood crush on her. A Joel Edgerton sighting in movies is all-too-rare these days after he got devoted moviegoers accustomed to seeing him pop up often in the mid-2010s. Al Ulbrickson was probably a wonderful coach who instilled great values of individualistic responsibility and the importance of teamwork in his rowing teams, but he is so faceless, you could mistake him for someone in the crowd watching the team compete.

Saving The Boys in the Boat from being a complete misfire is the production design, which is handsome and gorgeous. Clooney can direct the hell out of damn-near any setting, and he shoots this film with exquisite attention-to-detail in everything from costumes to sweeping east coast cityscapes. Him and cinematographer Martin Ruhe collaborate once again, this time to shoot some divinely intense rowing scenes that gift us every perspective we could wish. We have aerial shots, close-ups of paddles, the exhausted faces of the rowers’, and their legs and arms working in unison desperately trying to find their “swing.”

The Boys in the Boat is nothing if not gorgeous, but for what? Smith fails to characterize anyone meaningfully, and despite being a true story, the film has none of the historical impact because so much feels dramatized to the point of being diluted. For a sport as difficult as rowing, and one that has never truly caught on in the sports-obsessed culture of America, it and its participants demand far better treatment in Hollywood.

NOTE: The Boys in the Boat is now streaming on MGM+.

Starring: Callum Turner, Joel Edgerton, Hadley Robinson, Peter Guinness, Jack Mulhern, James Wolk, Courtney Henggeler, and Luke Slattery. Directed by: George Clooney.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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