The Way, Way Back
Opens Fri., July 12 at Guild 45th and other theaters. Rated PG-13. 102 minutes.
With its promo push “from the studio that brought you Little Miss Sunshine and Juno” (Fox Searchlight), the potential charm of this summertime coming-of-ager gets shrink-wrapped by the packaging. What ought to be indie feels more like stale product left in the deli case too long. 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) and his divorced mother Pam (Toni Colette) are dragged to a Massachusetts beach rental by her overbearing new bf Trent (Steve Carell). Trent. There is no way we are going to like a guy named that (and a car salesman, of course), and Duncan emphatically dislikes Trent, who takes every opportunity to belittle the shy, passive teen. In the movie’s very first scene, with Trent’s teen daughter and Pam asleep in the car, Trent says Duncan rates only a 3 on a scale of 1 to 10. Trent is an asshole, and the movie will do nothing to complicate that assessment.
Nor does it provide anything remotely surprising or original over the next 102 minutes. Co-directors/writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash are journeymen Hollywood comics who got lucky enough to have their names attached to a draft of The Descendants (Alexander Payne politely minimized their contribution). Oscars in hand, they pitched this awfully broad and familiar tale, in which unhappy Duncan finds a sympathetic mentor in Owen (Sam Rockwell), the flippant king of the local water park where Duncan lands a summer job. Owen is the anti-Trent: goofy and fun-loving, spitting out nicknames and bald lies, treating his staff with affectionate sarcasm, and harboring a not-so-secret thing for his boss (Maya Rudolph). While the drunken adults enjoy “spring break for adults” (per Duncan’s glum crush object, played by AnnaSophia Robb), Duncan finds new pals and self-confidence. We’ve seen this story a thousand times.
But what are its incidental pleasures? Rockwell, Rockwell, and Rockwell. Faxon and Rash—who also act in the film—give him long, nonsensical dialogues that feel ad-libbed and loose. He’s got happy feet and a motormouth. “I know about 46 ways to kill a clown,” he boasts. (Unfortunately, this is not Seven Psychopaths, so there’s no way to test his prowess.) Owen’s quotations of ’80s cheese-rock lyrics suggests how The Way, Way Back might better have been a period-set raunch-com, with more misbehavior for both the adults and teens. Instead, Faxon and Rash create a mood of unearned nostalgia that wafts like a car air-freshener called That One Special Summer That Changed Everything. For Duncan maybe, but not us.