THE WAY, WAY BACK C+
USA (103 mi) 2013 d: Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
It’s like spring break for adults. —Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb)
Beware of false advertising when it comes to summer movies, where one of the first out of the block, released over the 4th of July weekend, is THE WAY, WAY BACK, where a plethora of reviews are calling this similar in tone to LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006), but don’t for a second believe it. While the two films share the same studio, Fox Searchlight, which is trumpeting the dubious connection in their ad campaign, and has two members of the same cast in Steve Carell and Toni Collette, both are a huge disappointment. This is the same studio, by the way, that sued director Kenneth Lonergan and considered his film 2011 Top Ten Films of the Year #2 Margaret unreleasable, so it sat unseen on the studio shelves for 6 years before releasing the film for a single week, making sure as few people as possible saw the film. And for those looking for laughs and a feelgood comedy…oops, we’re sorry, but this is a film about the devastating consequences of divorce and adult bullying, where the lives of kids are secondary and get tossed around like leaves in the wind. What’s missing in this film is any hint of character development, which was the strong suit of MISS SUNSHINE, filled with memorable, and even lovable, characters. Not so here, as Steve Carell plays the most obnoxious person in the universe, rivaling Ben Stiller in GREENBERG (2010), a loathsome character the audience will simply hate, while Allison Janney plays the second most obnoxious person in the universe, the crazy neighbor next door who constantly has a drink in her hand and whose high-pitched, hysterical laugh can be heard throughout, that insincere kind of laugh that only gets louder as the jokes get less funny. What these two have in common is their tunnel vision ability to ignore and alienate kids through the absolute worst parenting techniques, where the example they serve is little more than pathetic. What’s worse, the film uses their infantile behavior for comic laughs, reversing the roles, where it’s the adults who act recklessly and irresponsibly, while most of the children are all much more mature.
Written by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the duo who co-wrote (along with the director) Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (2011), though this was written before that film, where there appear to be two separate stories, the first of which involves the dysfunctional world of adults, where without any back story, a divorced mother Pam (Toni Collette, another troubled woman) and her painfully shy 14-year old son Duncan (Liam James), tag along with her new overbearing boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and his typically superficial daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) and head to Trent’s summer house on the beach in Massachusetts. The title references the position in the car where the anti-social Duncan chooses to sit, in the way, way back of the stationwagon facing in the opposite direction of the other occupants. When they arrive, Betty (Allison Janney) enthusiastically announces she’s off the wagon and greets them as an alcoholic disaster waiting to happen, while making excuses for the blasé behavior of her own two kids, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), a moody teenager a few years older than Duncan, and Peter (River Alexander), the youngest and most ignored kid in the movie, who has a problem with one traveling eye, so his mother continually wants him to wear a patch out of sheer embarrassment. By the end of the film, however, the kid is adorable. Another couple joins them, Kip (Rob Corddry), the neighbor with a boat, and his promiscuous wife Joan (Amanda Peet) that Trent continually leers at. While these adults have backyard barbeque and drinking parties that go on into all hours of the night and morning, occasionally indulging in a little weed as well, buying from one of the neighbor kids, they make Duncan’s life a living hell, especially Trent, who steamrolls him every chance he gets, literally squashing any sense of self-esteem, continually making him feel worthless. The only worse movie parent that comes to mind is the Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in The Night of the Hunter (1955), and he’s a psychopathic knife-wielding murderer.
If you’re not bored to tears by the first half, where the generic sounding indie music is equally bland, showing no originality whatsoever, usually the staple for these kinds of films, as they’re usually about rebellious individuality, thankfully the film has a second half, where Duncan finds a water park on the other end of town, which may as well be another movie. While never reaching the sarcastic humor and observational honesty of Adventureland (2009), similarly set in an amusement park, this one includes still more infantile adults, like those working at the park, which includes both writers in amusing roles, and it also includes the co-manager Owen, Sam Rockwell, who is staggeringly hilarious in his role. Besides being a natural born clown that thrives on doing comedy bits and being the center of attention at an amusement park, causing grief to his more responsible wife Caitlin, Maya Rudolph, the other co-manager who actually has to run things, Owen turns out to be the friend that Duncan has been looking for, offering him a job there for the summer. Owen literally turns the kid’s life around, placing him in situations where he has to find his way, and then trusting that he’ll succeed, actually giving him a life that he never felt like he had. Trent only gets worse, twisting the screws of bad taste, while Duncan actually develops a friendship with the pretty girl next door, Susanna, while concealing the job, the developing relationships, and everything else from his family, who were ignoring him anyway except to berate him and boss him around. While Duncan is the star, he’s only mildly effective in the role, perhaps overly passive, and not all that interesting, while Sam Rockwell steals every scene he’s in, literally altering the focus of the film, becoming the only character worth paying attention to, delivering one of the best performances of his career. Because Rockwell is so funny, one might overlook the complexity of his growing friendship with Duncan, the way he nurtures the kid and treats him like an adult, even as he has his own personal growing up issues that need to be worked out. It’s a killer of a performance, one that deserves to be in a better film, which may be why the studio is hyping this film to be more than it is. In truth, the film raises some unpleasant social issues and then leaves them hanging at the end of the picture, never addressing the reality of what actually matters.