Title: The Way, Way Back
Genre(s): Comedy, Drama
Director(s): Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Release Year: 2013
Alexander Payne’s The Descendants was an enjoyable look at a man trying to raise a family while his wife is in a coma. That should have been a rather depressing affair, but Nat Faxon and Jim Rash helped Payne write a script that wasn’t too morose for audiences to get behind, winning them an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. Now Faxon and Rash have also moved into the director’s chair, without the aid of Payne, for The Way, Way Back. The comparisons to The Descendants will be hard to avoid, and subsequently, the comparisons to an Alexander Payne script is also inevitable because this film feels way too light-hearted to garner any accolades, but still manages to retain some of the dramatic weight which makes the film worth seeing. It quickly becomes clear that The Way, Way Back doesn’t have the gall to go anywhere too emotional, but instead keeps its distance so the entire family can enjoy the charismatic cast and charming dialogue.
You’re going to get vibes of Little Miss Sunshine throughout the movie as Duncan (Liam James) channels his inner-introvert, and subsequently his inner-Paul Dano, to become an uncomfortable presence on screen, but justifiably so. His mother, Pam (Toni Collette), has recently separated from his father and is now dating Trent (Steve Carell in a douche-performance that thankfully never reaches the scumbag levels of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone). Together, Duncan, Pam, Trent and Trent’s daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin), go on vacation to Trent’s summer home in a small town by the beach. It is there where Duncan comes out of his shell with the help of Water Wizz Park’s staff, including Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager of Duncan’s home-away-from-home. Once again, Faxon and Rash have taken us to a summer locale and given our main character a change in lifestyle to deal with. The difference here is that humor trumps drama in this first-time directorial effort, with nothing exactly ‘fresh’ happening except the idea of a water park being somebody’s secret love affair.
It is this humor that makes the film better than it really should be, and most of the time is anchored by the comedic cast working at Water Wizz. Jim Rash and Nat Faxon are both present as purely comedic relief, and Maya Rudolph acts as Owen’s love interest in the film. However, it is Sam Rockwell’s performance which steals the show (as it tends to do, such as in last year’s Seven Psychopaths) and elevates the film to another level of charm. His character is the kind of guy who never likes to be serious, always relying on his sense of humor to get him out of any situation, and it’s because of this that Rockwell is able to consistently deliver the comedic goods. There’s a little more to his character than simply being the humorous backbone of the film, but it rarely ever shows except in a of couple scenes, which still manage to impress.
The problem with The Way, Way Back is that it rarely ever decides to deal with any harsh subject matter, other than having a bunch of characters who are all from broken homes. The film wants to be a crowd-pleasing movie while still holding some kind of emotional resonance underneath its fluffy exterior. The unfortunate thing is, the dramatic scenes work almost as well as the comedy bits, and the movie could easily have been an Oscar contender down the road. It’s a case of not wanting to alienate the audience that just wants to relax and smile, and boy does this movie make you smile. I only wish that the film could have had more to it than merely being a light-hearted summer movie. There are so many scenes that manage to balance heart and humor in a way that makes you feel attached by the end of the film, and the movie winds up feeling way too ‘safe’ because of its unwillingness to dig deeper.
There are very few reasons not to go see The Way, Way Back however, and the movie seems to be getting pushed heavily by Fox Searchlight, presumably hoping to have another film like The Descendants or Little Miss Sunshine on their hands. The cast alone makes it worth checking out, with Rockwell proving once again that he is an incredibly well-rounded actor. The writing overall may be a bit too light and fluffy for some to get past, but if you just want to sit back and laugh, The Way, Way Back will keep delivering. I can see the movie being enjoyed by many fans of Little Miss Sunshine and taking on a life of its own on home video, but if you are hoping for a deep exploration of the themes casually presented in the film, you will be sorely out of luck.