Review: Lukewarm “The Boys in the Boat” is just another sports movie

The Boys in the Boat (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

There’s nothing I enjoy more than a great sports movie. Those rags to riches tales where the underdog comes out on top or as in the case with my favorite sports movie “Rocky” almost on top.

They can be thrilling, even inspiring or at the least take your mind off your troubles for the moment as you watch the latest chiseled heartthrob overcome his or her make-believe struggles on the big screen.

However, since I’ve seen so many sports films over the years, a new one can’t be just good and float my boat, and unfortunately “The Boys in the Boat” is competently made but lacks the essential thrills or emotional resonance that a winning sports movie must have to break into the winner’s circle.

The film, directed and co-produced by George Clooney, isn’t bad, in fact it’s a great-looking movie with wonderful cinematography by Martin Ruhe and excellent period set dressing, but the film can’t escape the formulaic plot that sees a rag-tag group of junior-varsity rowers from the University of Washington beat the odds by not only winning a spot in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, but by also spanking the Germans’ britches for the eight-man rowing gold medal while Hitler and his Nazi henchmen look on.

On the surface that plot sounds like a winner, but as great as the film looks, there is little emotional heft behind the movie that stars Callum Turner as impoverished college student Joe Rantz, who takes the chance of making the rowing team to earn room, board and tuition at Washington.

We learn that Rantz was abandoned by his father when he was 14 during The Great Depression to fend for himself. Somehow he enrolls in college and by fortitude of his sound body, mind and a grinding determination is able to stay in school by earning that rowing-team scholarship.

Joel Edgerton gives a stoic but knowing performance as rowing coach Al Ulbrickson, who makes the unorthodox choice of taking his junior-varsity rowers — made up of hardscrabble working-class overachievers like Rantz — to the rowing championship instead of his entitled first team. The winner of the race gains the opportunity to represent the United States in the aforementioned Olympics.

As you can guess, Washington wins the race, but unbeknownst to Ulbrickson the university has to foot the $5,000 cost of sending the squad to Berlin for the Olympics when money is tight because of the state of the national economy. If the boys from Washington can’t pay their way, one of the Ivy League squads that placed second or third in the race will foot the bill and take their place.

Of course, the Huskies are able to raise just enough money to make the trip where the squad will once again be underdogs in the Olympic event.

The movie does its best to hit all the right sentimental notes to pull on the audience’s heartstrings, but unfortunately the script is about as formulaic as this sentence. All the lines are delivered earnestly by all the characters but most of the performances are so low wattage and rote that it was hard for me to remain focused on the picture itself.

Hadley Robinson, who plays Joyce, Rantz’ girlfriend, adds a bit of effervescence to the film despite her one-note part. She brightens the screen every time she appears, but Turner is so low-key as Rantz that he tends to suck the life out of every extended scene between the two.

With films like “Good Night and Good Luck” and “Leatherheads” under his belt, Clooney has proven to be a solid if not gifted director, but this material is so by-the-book that one might mistake it for a creation of Artificial Intelligence.

Again, the movie isn’t terrible. It’s just boring.

PG-13 2 hr. 4 min.
Grade: C

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Classic Corner – Sleepless in Seattle

Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, and Ross Malinger in Sleepless in Seattle (TriStar Pictures)

New Year’s has always seemed like a romantic time of the year to me, but if you do not have plans to go out with your significant other, there are worse ways to while away the evening than watching a romantic-comedy.

Even if you aren’t feeling particularly romantic right now, you might be after watching a classic like “Sleepless in Seattle,” starring the adorable duo of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

Hanks, of course, is a bonafide national treasure of a movie star, and he practically owned the 1990s, winning Oscars for “Philadelphia” in 1994 and “Forrest Gump” in 1995 and being nominated for another in “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998. He also was nominated for “Big” in 1989, “Castaway” in 2001, and for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” in 2019.

Likewise Ryan was the queen of romantic-comedies during the 1990s. She did not win or get nominated for an Oscar because the Academy is too uppity to recognize comedic performances most of the time, but she did win three Golden Globes for her performances in “When Harry Met Sally” in 1989, “Sleepless in Seattle” in 1993, and “You’ve Got Mail” in 1998. All three are excellent if you are up for having your own in-home New Year’s Weekend Film Festival.

“Sleepless in Seattle” is sweet and sentimental, yet clever and crafty. It’s a love story in which there’s not a lot of interaction between the main characters until the final scenes, but it amazingly still works.

Hanks plays Sam Baldwin, a single father who is grieving for his late wife Maggie, who died from cancer a year and half before the bulk of the story plays out.

His son Jonah coaxes his dad to talk about Maggie on a coast-to-coast radio talk show. Thousands of women including “Baltimore Sun” reporter Annie Reed (Ryan ) hear the story and are touched.

After watching the movie “An Affair to Remember,” Annie, who is engaged to a man named Walker (Bill Pullman), writes a letter to Sam suggesting he meet her at the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day. Annie doesn’t mail the letter, but Annie’s editor Becky (Rosie O’Donnell) does, unbeknownst to Annie.

That should be enough of the plot to let you know if the film is your kind of movie or not.

Hanks and Ryan are great, but the movie shines as they interact with friends who offer them loads of advice like Rob Reiner, David Hyde Pierce, and the aforementioned O’Donnell.

The script by Ephron and writing partners Jeff Arch and David S. Ward has the audience rooting for the star-crossed lead characters in a film that hits all the right “will-they or won’t-they” notes.

“Sleepless in Seattle” is available on Amazon Prime and a host of other streaming channels.