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‘The Boys in the Boat’ gets stuck in the shallow end of the sports-movie pool

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — Steeped in old-fashioned virtues and a feel-good underdog story, “The Boys in the Boat” isn’t bad, but it doesn’t it ever navigate its way out of the shallow end of the sports-movie pool either. As it happens, Jesse Owens makes a cameo in this tale about the US Crew team from the University of Washington, a link to a better-known story from the 1936 Olympics that still eclipses this one.

Representing a modest departure for George Clooney wearing his director’s hat, “The Boys in the Boat” tries mightily to build excitement, suspense and lump-in-the-throat moments around its cast, led by Callum Turner (of the “Fantastic Beasts” movies and Apple TV+’s upcoming “Masters of the Air”) as Joe Rantz, the cash-strapped kid who has pragmatic financial reasons for making the rowing squad, and Joel Edgerton as the tough coach.

For all that, the movie can’t really escape the whirlpool-like drag of its earnest familiarity, paddling around in a middle lane that doesn’t rival the most stirring practitioners of this well-worn genre.

Indeed, after setting up Joe’s situation, which threatens to force him to quit school, Clooney (working from a screenplay by Mark L. Smith, with whom he collaborated on “The Midnight Sky”) relies on the customary training montages as Joe and his teammates try to master working in seamless unison, while Edgerton stares at a stopwatch with a furrowed brow.

For those not well versed in the mechanics of crew, success comes from everyone pulling together, though there are impediments that go beyond just turning in the fastest time, including snooty Ivy League schools that can’t imagine this upstart interloper from the Northwest horning in on their privileged playground.

Joe also finds time when he isn’t on the water to woo Joyce (Hadley Robinson of “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” and the just-released “Anyone But You”), sparking a relationship that doesn’t have time for much depth, thus relegating her in key moments to listening to calls of his races on the radio with a concerned expression.

Clooney has exhibited a passion for period pieces dating back to “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Leatherheads,” the latter his 2008 film about a professional football team in the 1920s. Still, it’s frankly hard to identify what attracted him to this material, or why such a by-the-numbers, no-frills offering would be cast out into the choppy seas of awards season.

Granted, “The Boys in the Boat” will probably be available for consumption at home relatively soon, but even then, given its throwback qualities, the film feels at best like an island – a low-key way to kill time as it row, row, rows gently into the stream.

“The Boys in the Boat” premieres December 25 in US theaters. It’s rated PG-13.

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