Skip to main content

It’s like spring break for adults.

The Way Way Back
(2013)

Steve Carrell was on the money when he said the quality that attracted to him in The Way Way Back was similar to the one he saw in Little Miss Sunshine. Both are immensely likeable feel-good indie movies, strong on quirky characterisation and relatable insights but also equipped with a slightly superficial fantasy uplift element in their depiction of protagonists overcoming trials and tribulations. This kind of fare follows something of an indie dramedy template and The Way Way Back is well observed, unintrusively directed and populated by some wonderful performances. But it’s also a wee-bit over-recognisable.


Co-writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have successful dual careers as comedy performers, and their writing partnership stems from performing together at comedy club The Groundlings.  The script for The Way Way Back had been kicking around since the mid ‘00s, but only finally went into production following the kudos and Oscar they received for adapting The Descendants with Alexander Payne. Payne is hard to beat with this kind of laugh/cry material, although he hasn’t really tapped the coming of age tale (that’s not really Election). Perhaps he knows how difficult it is to make a distinct mark on such stories; it would be easy to shower The Way Way Back with plaudits, yet it still feels like just another entry in a well-worn genre, complete with a summer park hearkening back to more louche ‘80s movies (tellingly, it was originally set in 1984). And Adventureland (although The Way Way Back is way better).


Duncan (Liam James) is an inexpressive and reserved teenager required to attend a Cape Cod summer break with his mother (Toni Collette), her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell) and Trent’s daughter Steph (Zoe Levin).  He would much rather spend time with his dad, but is instead stuck with an a prick of a patriarchal figure (Carrell on sterling unsympathetic form) and a not-sister who can barely tolerate the sight of him (and who heaps abuse on him when in the company of her friends). Mum Pam is sympathetic, but she’s trying to fit into Trent’s world and with his loud and uncouth friends (Allison Janney as sousy gossip Bettty, Rob Corddry and Amand Peet as couple Kip and Joan). During the trip to there, he’s also had to content with Trent informing him he is a “3” on a scale of 1 to 10, which pretty much tells us all we need to know about Trent.


It’s a bleak set up, and we can feel Duncan’s desire to just want to crawl under a rock and die, beset by inherent adolescent awkwardness and quite awful adult company. James excels at tongue-tied discomfort, which means the movie doesn’t have to rely solely on the more experienced supporting performers to carry it. Eventually Duncan carves out his own niche and comfort zone, when the manager of the local water park Owen (Sam Rockwell, exuding charisma levels on a part with the average Sam Rockwell performance) takes him under his wing. Invited into this company (which includes Faxon and Rash who are both effortlessly funny, particularly Rash as the balding and beleaguered lost property guy, and Maya Rudolph as Caitlyn, Owen’s possibly maybe). There is also Betty’s daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb, currently in Sex and the City prequel The Carrie Diaries, but who has been giving note perfect performances ever since Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), the older girl willing to given Duncan the time of day and on whom he develops a crush.


As such, this strays into fantasy territory unfamiliar to the typical introverted teenager; the coolest, most outgoing guy (Owen) in town for some reason takes to you; the more mature girl actually has time for you (most unlikely of all is her “You just surprised me” when she recounts why she recoiled from his attempts to kiss her); it’s wish-fulfilment confectionary with an indie tag, and recognisable names flock to it as it offers a bit of character meat and substance in contrast to the big budget bill-payers. The Way Way Back is warm-hearted and breezy, but it’s also quite shameless in milking its audience (just like Oscar darling Little Miss Sunshine; this, as essentially a teen angst movie, was unlikely to reach the same level of exposure).


Carrell, Rockwell and Janney have the showiest roles, and they just need to be wound up and let loose (I was surprised to hear Rockwell say this kind of spontaneity doesn’t come naturally, as it’s the way I typically imagine him from his roles; he also said he was channelling Bill Murray in Meatballs). Carrell in particular, can’t be underpraised for essaying an unreconstituted prick.  Corddry and Peet don’t get much to do other than behave coarsely, Rudolph is at her most sympathetically lovable, while River Alexander, as Betty’s other offspring Peter, is sure to win a rash of exhuberant child parts on the back of this (the sequence in which Owen admires Peter’s eye patch is a particularly rich exchange, where Alexander actually manages to wrest the focus from Rockwell).


The Way Way Back was a Sundance hit, snapped up by Fox Searchlight and went on to be the biggest commercial success of the screenings there that year. It’s funny, touching and shrewdly calculated; Faxon and Rash could probably ease full time into writing-directing on the back of it, should they so wish (next up is The Heart with Kristen Wiig), but I don’t think there’s much danger of them doing so exclusively given their natural yen for performance.







Popular posts from this blog

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

Archimedes would split himself with envy.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) (SPOILERS) Generally, this seems to be the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad outing that gets the short straw in the appreciation stakes. Which is rather unfair. True, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger lacks Tom Baker and his rich brown voice personifying evil incarnate – although Margaret Whiting more than holds her own in the wickedness stakes – and the structure follows the Harryhausen template perhaps over scrupulously (Beverly Cross previously collaborated with the stop-motion auteur on Jason and the Argonauts , and would again subsequently with Clash of the Titans ). But the storytelling is swift and sprightly, and the animation itself scores, achieving a degree of interaction frequently more proficient than its more lavishly praised peer group.

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

You have a very angry family, sir.

Eternals (2021) (SPOILERS) It would be overstating the case to suggest Eternals is a pleasant surprise, but given the adverse harbingers surrounding it, it’s a much more serviceable – if bloated – and thematically intriguing picture than I’d expected. The signature motifs of director and honestly-not-billionaire’s-progeny Chloé Zhao are present, mostly amounting to attempts at Malick-lite gauzy natural light and naturalism at odds with the rigidly unnatural material. There’s woke to spare too, since this is something of a Kevin Feige Phase Four flagship, one that rather floundered, showcasing his designs for a nu-MCU. Nevertheless, Eternals manages to maintain interest despite some very variable performances, effects, and the usual retreat into standard tropes, come the final big showdown.