Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
The title The Way, Way Back refers to either (A) the natural rewritten title of The Way Back after a film of the same name was released in 2010, (B) how the protagonist of the film sits in the third row of the family station wagon, or (C) the attempt by the screenwriters to search the vast receptacle of recycled ideas until, at the way, way back of it, they arrive at that most reliable and cherished of clichéd cinematic formulas: The Summer Movie.
There are, of course, examples of Summer Movies that work: The Game of Love (1954), Pauline at the Beach (1983), C’est la Vie (1990), and Fat Girl (2001). The problem, however, is that all those Summer Movies are French, which means that they are actually realistic in their portrayals of teenage angst, explorations of sexuality, and open contempt of the adult world. The Way, Way Back is a closer descendant of the Frankie and Annette films and Gidget, which is wonderful for audiences hoping to make their minds doormat for an hour and a half. It’s the perfect movie for nostalgic philistines, intellectually stunted distant relatives, and insomniacs seeking medical assistance.
The Way, Way Back uses dozens of Summer Movie clichés: The unhappy parents – in this case, asshole potential stepdad Steve Carell and meekish mom Toni Collette, the cute girl next door (Annasophia Robb), and, at the center of the film, the helplessly awkward white male teen (Liam James), with the unfortunate name of Duncan, who channels his rage on to the pink girl’s bicycle he rides to the local water park every day unbeknownst to mom and stepdad. In fact, The Way, Way Back is so conspicuous in its cinematic
theft recycling that it even uses
characters from previous movies: Allison Janney reprises her own role from Away We Go as the boozy, low-cut
vulgarian who openly mocks her kids while downing another martini. And Sam Rockwell and Maya Rudolph try to breathe
life into the postmortem roles of Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig in Adventureland as the lovably cynical park
employees who rescue Duncan from the horrors of hanging out on the beach,
listening to music on top of stepdad’s car, and romancing the cute girl beneath
4th of July fireworks. Oh,
the repulsion of summer vacation!
There is a tendency to forgive The Way, Way Back because The Summer Movie is, by its own nature, so earnestly underachieving – it’s not unlike the unkempt high schooler who walks into class 20 minutes late, says something funny, and incidentally leaves an indelible impression. But the filmmakers, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, are not content to simply underachieve; they also shamelessly Oscar-bait with contrived tearful confrontations between Duncan and his stepdad (“You’re not my father!”) and heartwarming exchanges between the few adults who actually care about him (“You’ve got a great kid here.”) The numerous supporting characters all feel half-baked because the screenplay is indecisive about what the true focus of the film is (Duncan and his mom? Duncan and his girlfriend? Duncan and the waterpark?)
A few other nitpicks. What year does this movie take place? Judging by the aged station wagon, the inexplicable lack of cell phones, and the Pac Man arcade game Sam Rockwell plays, it would seem to be the early 1980s. But the movie’s ambiguousness about this (perhaps in an auspicious attempt to be “timeless”) is less endearing than it is annoying. And then there’s the numerous scenes that attempt to explain the apocryphal mythology of the waterpark, with the wonderful name Water Wizz. Treating the park as though it is some aquatic summertime Shangri-La, Faxon and Rash give Rockwell exposition that contains some of the most laughably overwritten dialogue in years. Noel Coward on top of a waterslide, this is not.
The best parts of The Way, Way Back are the two young actors (who should be more) at the center of the story, Liam James and Annasophia Robb. They have exchanges that are mostly natural and lifelike, complete with awkward pauses and feeble attempts at humor. They talk a lot about how they wish they could get away from all the crazy grownups in the story who are on “spring break for adults.” Why couldn’t the filmmakers grant mercy on them (and us) by taking them away from the rest of this plot?
Rating: 2 stars