Wednesday, May 29, 2013

"The Way, Way Back" will make you want to go for a nice swim, it's also a pretty good movie

When we first meet Duncan, he's in the very back seat of a stationwagon and he's not having a very good time. He's on his way to a beach house to spend time with his mother and her boyfriend for the summer. It's a nice house bordering the shore, lots of cute girls, parties, etc... but when you're an awkward teen being thrown into the perils of divorce, all that fun stuff can blow right past you. Duncan is mostly grumpy, trying to adjust to life with his mother and her boyfriend, but the boyfriend, Trent, (played by Steve Carell) isn't really helping matters.

Trent flat out asks Duncan to rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10. After much goading, Duncan finally answers. He thinks of himself a "6." Trent, on the other hand, thinks he's a "3." Not a great way to try to get along with your girlfriend's son, but we'll soon learn that Trent really is kind of an asshole. That said, Duncan doesn't exactly help. Should he try to be happier, for the sake of his mother? Perhaps, but "The Way, Way Back" is smart in that it showcases how these beach house trips really isn't about the kids at all, but more like "Spring Break for adults," as one kid wisely observes. So, it's understandable why a lot of kids in the area aren't exactly thrilled to be there. The trip is all about the parents, with very little time spent with the kids. What's a teenage boy to do when you're stuck in a place you don't want to be? Well, in this case, you bump into Sam Rockwell (his character, that is).

To be honest, while "The Way, Way Back" starts off nice enough, you will be breathing much easier once Sam Rockwell enters the screen. His character, Owen, brings such necessary life and spirit to the film and things really move along smoothly when he's on screen. He's such a strong on-screen presence that the rest of the movie begins to suffer in comparison. Duncan and Owen wind up bonding and Duncan gets a job at Water Wizz, a water park Owen manages. Thanks to Owen, Duncan begins to lighten up a bit more and becomes a hit with the guests (who apparently go there everyday). Duncan even begins to put the moves on Susanna, a cute girl who stays in the beach house next door. But when Duncan bikes away from Owen and Water Wizz and has to deal with the drama going on at the beach house, the tone just feels too wildly different.

What "The Way, Way Back" also suffers from is having a mopey lead character. There are a lot of coming-of-age stories that have this problem. I highly enjoyed "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," but the lead character was probably the least interesting of the bunch. Same is the case here. Duncan is not even the "straight man," he's just brooding. He loosens up when he starts working at Water Wizz and once that happens, the film becomes much more enjoyable. But again, because the water park scenes are so fun, it makes the more dramatic scenes at the beach house kind of a chore to get through.

This might be because it's made by first-time directors. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash were part of the Oscar-winning three-man writing team behind "The Descendants." Alexander Payne, of course, was that third member of the writing team and he directed the film. "The Way, Way Back" has a similar feel to "The Descendants." It's very laid back, a little free-wheeling, but because the main character isn't as fun, the dramatic moments are harder to get through. "The Descendants" worked mostly because George Clooney oozes charisma and you felt for his character, in "The Way, Way Back," Duncan is just a whiny teenager. You understand what he's going through, we've all been there, but sometimes you wish he'd just lighten the hell up. His anger is sometimes justified, but other times, he's just a bit too sensitive. It's hilarious to watch Sam Rockwell's Owen bounce off Duncan, but it seems Faxon and Rash had some difficulty finding that right tonal balance that Alexander Payne is such a master at.

That said, "The Way, Way Back" is still a very solid, often enjoyable film that has a great cast. Aside from Carell, Sam Rockwell, and 16 year old Liam James who plays Duncan, there's also Toni Collette, the always wonderful and underrated Allison Janney, Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry, and Amanda Peet. I actually think it should be a requirement for Allison Janney to appear in dramadies like these. She's always very memorable when she plays these types of roles, best exemplified from her turn in "Juno" where she plays the title character's step mother. She's just a pro and she gets the second best lines in the film (Sam Rockwell comes out on top in that category, sorry).

And yeah, can't say enough about Sam Rockwell. Rockwell is at his best when he's given the chance to be loose and just shoot the shit. He deserves to be in more comedies. Steve Carell is also memorable as the dickish 40-something boyfriend of Duncan's mother. This role is a great change of pace for Carell who usually plays likable guys. He showcases here that he can play a pretty convincing jerk. Good for him.

And while I do think Faxon and Rash's debut film has a few problems, I am really interested in seeing more films from them. "The Descendants" was Alexander Payne's most laid back film and I really enjoyed the way that film was paced. "The Way, Way Back" shows the writer/directors' were just as much responsible for "The Descendants" being as successful as it was. If they can just correct a few kinks here and there, they can wind up having solid directorial careers.

It could stand to be a little more fun, but "The Way, Way Back" is a good film with a great cast that will make you want to start looking for your swimming trunks.

Grade: B

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