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Clooney’s ‘Boys in the Boat’ is an underdog saga that’s both stirring and a tad stodgy


Director George Clooney both begins and ends “The Boys in the Boat “ on a sun-dappled lake. It’s a seductive sight, calm and soothing, and aptly reflects the ethos of a film that often feels like one has walked into an oil painting: well-crafted, lovely to look at, and rather old-fashioned.

Telling the true-life story of the University of Washington rowing team, a scrappy group that — incredibly — reached the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Clooney has gone for stirring and a bit stodgy, pleasing and a bit predictable. Given the craft involved, this is hardly a fatal flaw. And yet, when Joel Edgerton’s coach character surveys his team at one point and remarks, “We need an edge, Tom,” we think: Ah, yes. A little edge here would be nice.

In place of edge, we do get moments of beauty, especially when the boys get into those boats. Rowing is, though, the last thing on the mind of Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), a homeless college student, when we first meet him.

We’re in 1936 Seattle, deep into the Great Depression. Rantz is trying to learn engineering, but can barely afford to stay afloat, and we’re not talking, for now, about a body of water. Abandoned by his father at 14, he can’t even afford to eat lunch at the university cafeteria, slipping out to a soup kitchen. At the bursar’s office, they give him two weeks to pay his bill.

A fellow student says the crew team is holding tryouts. The prospect holds little interest for Joe until he learns it comes with a paycheck and a cheap room. The only problem: only eight of the hundreds who try out will make the team.

But like every substantial obstacle in this film, this one is quickly overcome: Joe and his friend are accepted. This delights the one other person in Joe’s life: Joyce (a sweet and heartfelt Hadley Robinson), who sits behind him in class, nudges him when he’s about to fall asleep, and starts to fall in love with him. This is not too hard — the blond and athletic Joe is, as his friend says of Joyce earlier, “a looker” — though not much of a talker.

But there’s hardly time for chitchat anyway. Days are filled with practice, practice, practice., or utter lines like: “We’re going to go in there and do it until we get it right!”

The junior varsity Huskies are the quintessential underdogs in every way. And so nobody expects much when they get to their first big test, against Cal Berkeley. “Let’s show them what’s in this boat!” says the energetic coxswain, Bobby (Luke Slattery), whose job is to steer the boat, coordinate the rowers and, at key moments, urge them to greatness.

There is one more setback before this team of underdogs can make it to Berlin, and its resolution is one of the more moving moments in the script. And then, finally, they arrive in Nazi Germany, to the swastikas and the banners and patriotic crowds urging on the German team, with Adolf Hitler in the stands.

We’ll avoid the spoiler, but suffice it to say that the finale does pretty much what it needs to. No, there is not much “edge” here, but Clooney and team prove that sometimes, slow and steady — or should we say, pretty and pleasing — can still win some races. JOCELYN NOVECK, National Writer, AP

“The Boys in the Boat,” a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures release, has been rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association “for language and smoking.” Running time: 124 minutes.

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