The Boys in the Boat Review: George Clooney Misdirects Otherwise Mediocre Olympic Rowing Drama

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Sports dramas are usually a pretty safe genre, with films that rarely defy expectations, but at least succeed at the bare minimum goal of inspiring the audience. The Boys in the Boat is this year’s would-be awards contender dud — a crowd-pleaser that’s so underwritten and poorly directed that it’s not even respectable on a surface level.

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The Boys in the Boat follows the University of Washington rowing team as their team of inexperienced rowers tries to make it to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. There are a lot of political undercurrents to this — considering that it’s during the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler’s Germany, and the same Olympics that Jesse Owens was at — so it’s probably not surprising that this story has largely been overshadowed in history.

One of the movie’s biggest issues is the lack of development of the characters. We get a lot of backstory for one of the rowers. His teammates — even the ones he’s friends with — don’t have much to do. We also don’t get to know the coach much beyond the team. Ultimately, what is missing from The Boys in the Boat is a reason to care. We start by mentioning the Great Depression and how the team was a refuge for these impoverished students, but the film barely makes anything out of that.

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the boys in the boat featured
(L-R) Bruce Herbelin-Earle stars as Shorty Hunt, Callum Turner as Joe Rantz and Jack Mulhern as Don Hume in director George Clooney’s THE BOYS IN THE BOAT, an Amazon MGM Studios film. Photo credit: Laurie Sparham. © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Boys in the Boat would be mostly average, were it not for poor direction

Instead, we get an entirely straightforward underdog tale about this band of misfits trying to make it to the Olympics. That wouldn’t necessarily be bad if it didn’t feel like Mark L. Smith’s script — based on Daniel James Brown’s book — was labored to get through the motions. In the hands of a better coxswain, this probably just would have been forgettable and average, but Clooney managed to turn something harmless into something bafflingly bad.

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While most of Clooney’s directorial outings have not been particularly acclaimed, they’ve at least had many redeeming qualities. There are few of those to be found here, as the movie is utterly clumsy in its direction. For example, the way the scenes between the athlete protagonist and his coach are blocked, shot, and performed, you’d think they have some sort of pre-existing relationship outside the team when that isn’t the case.

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The racing scenes have a few glimpses of good, but it’s hard to mess up shooting a race. These scenes have an inherent excitement to them thanks to the competitive nature of rowing, and viewers will at least be charmed by the underdog aspect of the story. That being said, in the climax, there are a few cutaways that are questionable at best and laughable at worst, almost ruining the rhythm of the sequence.

the boys in the boat
(L-R) Chris Diamantopoulos stars as Royal Brougham, James Wolk as Coach Bolles,
and Joel Edgerton as Al Ulbrickson in director George Clooney’s
THE BOYS IN THE BOAT. An Amazon MGM Studios film. Photo credit: Laurie Sparham. © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Furthermore, it feels like everyone in the cast is sleepwalking through their performances. This is especially the case for Joel Edgerton. Although Edgerton’s trademark is typically stolid, his performance here is particularly uninspired. Callum Turner is extremely nondescript in a role that could have been filled by anybody.

At first, it seems like The Boys in the Boat is simply going to be another forgettable sports drama. However, it is so clumsily directed by George Clooney that it becomes downright laughable, creating meanings that aren’t there. At best, it’s bland and effortless; at worst, it’s unintentionally ridiculous.

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The Boys in the Boat hits theaters on December 25.

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Rating: 4/10

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Written by Sean Boelman

Articles Published: 174

Sean is a film critic, filmmaker, and life-long cinephile. For as long as he can remember, he has always loved film, but he credits the film Pan's Labyrinth as having started his love of film as art. Sean enjoys watching many types of films, although some personal favorite genres include music documentaries, heist movies, and experimental horror.