The Way, Way Back
In the opening scene, Liam James is hit by a cruel comment from his mother’s new boyfriend (Steve Carell) and any thoughts are drowned out by MOR music. That tactic sums up The Way, Way Back, a calculated indie quirkathon ready to thrust a warm blanket on potential drama.
James, playing an emotionless 14-year-old, is unwillingly dragged to Carell’s beach house by his mother, Toni Collette. His summer is doomed to boredom (no mobile phones), even with all the snappy neighbours and visitors; Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, Allison Janney join Collette and Carell for unnaturally punch conversation, punctuated by forced one-liners. During this indulgence, James sulks in the corner, somewhat reflecting how I felt in the cinema.
Naturally, James finds a glimmer of excitement in AnnaSophia Robb – similarly aged and literally the girl next door. But he truly comes alive at a nearby water park, where he’s befriended by Sam Rockwell and Maya Rudolph. It should now be clear that The Way, Way Back is overloaded with characters, many of whom seem included for star power. It wouldn’t surprise me if the poster campaign was written before the script.
The coming-of-age element is fairly artificial; instead of a tribute to old summer beach flicks, it lazily follows a template of cliches (and a truly bizarre nod to the closing shot of The Graduate). The screenwriters, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, also responsible for the overrated The Descendants, inject an unfortunate self-awareness – one of old pros aiming at the middle. They also make their directorial debut, and their inexperience shows; shots are limps, musical cues are condescending.
One obvious comparison is Adventureland, which placed Jesse Eisenberg at the theme park for most of the duration. Perhaps The Way, Way Back should have followed that structure by cutting out the mindless subplot at the beach house. I know it’s the whole point of the film, but the Water Wizz scenes are filled with so much energy, it’s as lopsided as some of the rides. Rockwell is considerably the main attraction, and his lively guidance saves both James’ confidence and the film itself.
Unfortunately, James holds the most screen time and his passive blandness is unintentionally the comic highlight. The Way, Way Back sends the message that heroes don’t need a personality or presence – instead, 30 seconds of awkward “pop and lock” dancing can win the hearts of perplexed onlookers (but not the cinema audience).
United States of America
103 mins approx
Nat Faxon & Jim Rash