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'The Way, Way Back' derivative dramedy

Liam James as Duncan in THE WAY WAY BACK.
Liam James as Duncan in THE WAY WAY BACK.
Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures (c) 2013.

The Way Way Back


“The Way, Way Back” is the sort of movie that probably makes actors feel like they’re doing good work because they get to talk a lot. But the actors are actually the best thing about this movie which is absolutely nothing you haven’t seen before.

Liam James is Duncan, a mass-production, cookie cutter, straight-from-central casting, adolescent movie protagonist, who’s being dragged off to spend a summer at the beach house of his recently divorced mother’s boyfriend.We know this kid inside and out from the opening shot. He’s awkward and quiet, inwardly seething, and the point of the movie is to, wait for it, see him come of age. The title derives from the fact that he’s spending the car trip in what we used to call “the way way back” of the boyfriend’s vintage station wagon.

Which begs the question in what world do even the dorkiest adults get excited about vintage station wagons? When did station wagons actually get to be vintage? Wouldn’t “old” cover it? The fact that the kid has to watch the highway they’ve already traveled through the back window is a metaphor too obvious to bother discussing, although co-writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash seem to think they’re being deep.

The almost omnipresent Steve Carrell plays Trent, mom Toni Collette’s terminally obnoxious boyfriend. Carrell has the discipline and self-confidence to let Trent be Trent, which means the audience is going to want to kill him for much of the movie. Arrogant, condescending and controlling, Trent is everything a teenage boy is likely to hate on sight, and Carrell doesn’t even try to make him sympathetic. Toni Collette’s role of Pam, the newly single mother, is almost as thankless. The script provides Pam some growth, but only once Trent’s bad behavior eventually can’t be reasonably excused or overlooked.

The movie is, if anything, overloaded with supporting characters played by fine actors, and it’s particularly frustrating to see Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet largely stuck on the sidelines of the emotional mayhem. Allison Janney fares better as the boozy, loud, oversexed, next-door neighbor, but make no mistake, this is a role she’s overqualified for. Anna-Sophia Robb is absolutely lovely as the girl next door Liam understandably crushes on.

The parents treat their vacation like an extended spring break at the expense of their children. Some of the kids in this movie are annoying, but the behavior of the adults is reprehensible. Trent’s disaffected daughter (Zoe Levin) may smuggle bottles of beer down to the beach, but it’s the adults who are doing the serious boozing, and they’re practically running a telethon to keep the local liquor store in business. On top of that, they’re sneaking off to smoke pot and make out with each other’s wives behind beach houses. It’s Fort Lauderdale for forty year olds.

Duncan finds salvation comes in the form of an antiquated water park run by Owen (Sam Rockwell), a man-child who for reasons that never become entirely clear takes it upon himself to befriend the boy and even give him a job. This is a movie where you tend to like the kids and hate the adults and Owen doesn’t count, because he never even pretends to be grown up. The only character who isn’t always charmed by him is Maya Rudolph, effective as Owen’s girlfriend Caitlin, who voices doubts about their summer job lifestyle. And yet, economic security and stability be damned, these people clearly seem happier than the more affluent middle-classers who own the beach houses.

The movie is at its most entertaining when Duncan appropriates an old, pink bike with a banana seat and pedals to the water park, forming a relationship with Anna-Sophia Robb in the process. The coming of age aspects of the plot are charming and find the adolescent characters at their most likeable. At the same time, the audience is likely to want horsewhip most of the adults.

Dramedy is a ticklish hybrid genre, and finding a consistent tone is usually key to making the movie work. The tone here is inconsistent, the pacing uneven and the story generally lacks focus. There’s an awkward feeling of an experience-based college screenwriting assignment where an undergraduate failed to realize that the fact that this actually happened to him doesn’t make it a good story. Yes, Faxon and Rash won an Oscar for “The Descendants,” but that was adapted from a novel they didn’t write, and they shared screenwriting credit with the director. The climax, which does deal metaphorically has all the surprise of a gold watch and cake at a retirement party, is underwhelming to boot.

“The Way Way Back” is far too well-acted and well-intentioned to give a thumbs-down to. As hackneyed as the script often is, aspects of this story are genuinely charming. But ultimately, this is movie is like eating cotton candy on the boardwalk, and likely to be as easily forgotten once you’ve licked the last of the sugar off your fingers.

“The Way, Way Back” is now playing at the Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX, and the Spectrum 7 on Delaware Avenue in Albany.