Editor’s Notes: The Way, Way Back opens today. Check your local listings for showtimes. For an additional perspective on the film, please read Mel’s review.
Two years ago, when The Descendants won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay many were wondering just who those other guys on stage were (made all the worse by Alexander Payne’s bogarting of the mic for the entire time). Besides hardcore comedy fans, the small devoted Community following, and those that just love them some State Farm commercials (just me?), Jim Rash and Nat Faxon were more or less unknowns. Following the acclaim of The Descendants the duo was able to get their hands back on a script they had written eight years prior and decided that this time around they would handle it themselves. The Way, Way Back marks their directorial debut and it’s a strong one at that.
Carell isn’t the only stand out. The film is positively dripping with recognizable faces turning in interesting performances that it is easy to forget that this is a relatively small independent feature.
Duncan (Liam James) is less than happy with the way things are going. A primarily indoor kid, he is being dragged on a summer vacation to a New England beach house with his mother and her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), a guy that he has yet to develop a liking to. Things appear to be going as awfully as he feared so he sets out on his own to explore the local town. He runs into Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager of the nearby Water Wizz, and over a game of Pac Man, the two develop a quick friendship that lands Duncan a job at the water park. Away from the comfort of his mother and the torment of Trent, he spends the summer discovering that things might not be as bad as he once thought.
In Knocked Up there comes a point when Katherine Heigl’s character is interviewing Steve Carell on a red carpet. In the uncomfortable interview neither side comes out looking rosy and while watching the playback Bill Hader’s character says, “Wow. You managed to turn Steve Carell into an asshole. No easy feat”. Well, now Nat Faxon and Jim Rash can also cross that one off their lists. The casting of the effortlessly likable Carell in the role of Trent, an overconfident and belittling chud of a person, was a strong choice. The character is written well enough so that any person spouting the subtly hate-filled conversational poison would elicit a modicum of distaste. However, by casting Carell the character is able to push past horrible caricature into actuality. There is a charm to Trent that is hard to pinpoint and despite his mistreatment of Duncan, Pam’s insistence on remaining with him is not completely farfetched. It’s one of those performances that impresses in its quiet complexity.
Carell isn’t the only stand out. The film is positively dripping with recognizable faces turning in interesting performances that it is easy to forget that this is a relatively small independent feature. Allison Janney is over-the-top and her character dips into the puddle of annoyance before plowing through it completely and coming to rest happily on the right side of enjoyment. Sam Rockwell leaves you wondering who else could play his role if not a younger Bill Murray. Of course, all of these actors are merely supporting players as this is Duncan’s story, and Liam James does his best to carry the proceedings. It is tough to like him at first, his incessant sulking and blackhole of angst is more than groan inducing, but as we come to know him we find that he really isn’t all that bad. The character shows a believably gradual growth that doesn’t result in an absolute change in him as a person but rather a further development. James performs just fine oozing a genuine awkwardness that is uncomfortably familiar, it is far from breathtaking and much of his success can be attributed to the delightfully funny and somber-when-it-needs-to-be screenplay.
The film feels greatly influenced by those summer coming-of-age films of the 80s. The central relationship between Owen and Duncan is strikingly similar to the one in Meatballs (Meatballs-ian? Meatballs-esque?) and just as endearing.
The film feels greatly influenced by those summer coming-of-age films of the 80s. The central relationship between Owen and Duncan is strikingly similar to the one in Meatballs (Meatballs-ian? Meatballs-esque?) and just as endearing. It was nice to see that the inclination to show the faults of Owen, which we can assume readily exist, was dismissed. We do not need to know how Owen is broken, he is there to support Duncan, and the film thankfully keeps this focus. Setting itself apart from its inspirations, the film slows things down when necessary and occasionally stops the laughter to get real. The attempt to deal with the problems of broken homes and less than adequate parenting never feels complete and like the film’s ending, which occurs far too suddenly for my taste, only digs slightly below the surface. There is certainly something to be said, and it appears that Faxon and Rash have an idea of what they think it should be, but they only approach it before retreating into lighter comedy. The film is successful on the comedy front, packing in laughs more-or-less from start to finish, but struggles when it comes to the more dramatic moments.
There has really been a big push of coming-of-age films as of late. This is becoming the summer of the adolescent male’s path to discovery, and I’m not really complaining. Sure, it’s not really all that hard to be a teenaged, white, middle-class boy, but with The Way, Way Back it shows that he at least can have an interesting story. With strong acting from the adult cast, particularly a douchebaggery laden Steve Carell and a charming Sam Rockwell, complex characters populate an authentically crafted town. While the load of some of the more dramatic moments proves to be a bit heavy for the film, its ability to handle the comedic with ease is a pleasure. The Way, Way Back doesn’t accomplish all that it sets out to, but its well-written script and exceptional casting still make for an exceedingly funny and thoughtful tale of growth that manages to feel timeless.
[notification type=”star”]82/100 ~ GREAT. With strong acting from the adult cast, particularly a douchebaggery laden Steve Carell and a charming Sam Rockwell, complex characters populate an authentically crafted town. [/notification]