I tend to reference formula quite a lot when talking about sports movies. Nearly all of them depend on one for their arcs. However, it wouldn’t be fair to discuss the formula used in The Boys in the Boat because that would literally give the entire movie away. There isn’t a shred of creativity, originality or filmmaking skill in its 119 minutes (not including the end credits).
Based on a true story (adapted from Daniel James Brown’s 2013 bestselling non-fiction book The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics), this feels a lot more like it’s based on uplifting sports movie tropes. Unfortunately, director George Clooney and screenwriter Mark L. Smith took the outline of a potentially inspiring story and filled it in with nothing but cliches. This is a hollow, emotionless, poorly made drama that doesn’t have the patience to properly follow its formula. It’s a crowd-pleaser for viewers who hate substance.
This opens with Joe Rantz, a cash-strapped student at the University of Washington who decides to try out for the rowing team to earn enough money to pay for his tuition. After very little suspense, and even less description of what being on an 8-man rowing team requires (two major issues here), he gets chosen. The coach, Al Ulbrickson, is probably supposed to be the usual demanding hardass who really cares about his athletes, yet he is never established as anything. We barely see him coaching. For that matter, Joe has no personality besides being determined. The rest of the team fares even worse.
The result is that good performers like Joel Edgerton, Callum Turner, Peter Guinness and Chris Diamantopoulos struggle mightily with underwritten characters spouting ridiculously on-the-nose dialogue. The biggest victim is Hadley Robinson as Joyce, Joe’s sweetheart. She exists solely to display her devotion to this guy, only talking to him about his rowing. Since Joe never has anything remotely interesting to say, and their conversations together are completely meaningless, I have no idea what she sees in him. Joyce is clearly in this movie so there would be a female character (this also explains the presence of Courtney Henggeler as Ulbrickson’s wife). This is one of many ways in which the filmmakers failed this material.
There are two keys to creating a successful sports story. The first is showcasing likable characters the audience roots for. There is not a single character in The Boys in the Boat with the depth to feel like more than a cardboard cutout. The other team members are even more thinly developed than Joe.
The screenplay makes a show of setting up a class conflict between the Washington boys and the rich kids of Cal, but it basically just mentions it. We don’t meet these guys on a personal level, so their lack of opportunity is merely a concept. That is a big problem when the plot is dependent on viewers cheering for them to overcome the odds. Clooney never pauses to explore those odds; he only uses them for very weak dramatic effect when he needs a contrived crisis.
The second key is simply generating suspense from our heroes’ pursuit of their seemingly impossible goal. In this case, a bunch of college students who haven’t rowed before are trying to not only defeat experienced college teams, they are also hoping to make it to the Olympics to compete against the best in the world. Since we aren’t truly clued in on the strategy at play, we’re just watching a dude yell while some other dudes row. Sometimes the boat goes faster, sometimes it doesn’t. This is as boring as it sounds. It certainly doesn’t help that the outcomes of the races are never really in doubt.
The Boys in the Boat isn’t exciting or inspiring or entertaining. It feels like George Clooney wanted to make a by-the-numbers feel-good based-on-real-life movie, then assumed the team’s story would be enough. The final product is an annoying, confusingly edited, waste of a promising tale.
1 out of 5
Callum Turner as Joe Rantz
Joel Edgerton as Coach Al Ulbrickson
James Wolk as Coach Tom Bolles
Peter Guinness as George Pocock
Hadley Robinson as Joyce Simdars
Chris Diamantopoulos as Royal Brougham
Directed by George Clooney
Screenplay by Mark L. Smith