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.







Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

If this is not a place for a priest, Miles, then this is exactly where the Lord wants me.

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)
(SPOILERS) Sometimes a movie comes along where you instantly know you’re safe in the hands of a master of the craft, someone who knows exactly the story they want to tell and precisely how to achieve it. All you have to do is sit back and exult in the joyful dexterity on display. Bad Times at the El Royale is such a movie, and Drew Goddard has outdone himself. From the first scene, set ten years prior to the main action, he has constructed a dizzyingly deft piece of work, stuffed with indelible characters portrayed by perfectly chosen performers, delirious twists and game-changing flashbacks, the package sealed by an accompanying frequently diegetic soundtrack, playing in as it does to the essential plot beats of the whole. If there's a better movie this year, it will be a pretty damn good one.

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

It is the greatest movie never released, you know.

They'll Love Me When I'm Dead (2018)
(SPOILERS) They'll Love Me When I'm Dead, Morgan Neville's documentary on the making of Orson Welles' long-gestating The Other Side of the Wind, is much more interesting than the finally finished article itself, but to be fair to Welles, he foresaw as much as a possibility. Welles' semi-improvised faux-doc approach may not seem nearly as innovative nearly fifty years on – indeed, in the intervening period there's a slew of baggage of boundary-blurring works, mockumentaries and the whole found footage genre – but he was striving for something different, even if that "different" was a reaction to the hole he'd dug himself in terms of bankability. On the evidence of the completed film, he never quite found the necessary rhythm or mode, but the struggle to achieve it, as told here, is fascinating.

You kind of look like a slutty Ebola virus.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
(SPOILERS) The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians – in the US at any rate, thus far – might lead one to think it's some kind of startling original, but the truth is, whatever its core demographic appeal, this adaptation of Kevin Kwan's novel taps into universally accepted romantic comedy DNA and readily recognisable tropes of family and class, regardless of cultural background. It emerges a smoothly professional product, ticking the expected boxes in those areas – the heroine's highs, lows, rejections, proposals, accompanied by whacky scene-stealing best friend – even if the writing is sometimes a little on the clunky side.

Have you ever looked into a goat's eyes?

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
(SPOILERS) There was probably an insightful, sensitive movie to be made about the World War II experiences of conscientious objector Desmond Doss, but Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge isn’t it. It’s unsurprising that a number of reviewers have independently indulged the wordplay Hackneyed Ridge, an effective summation of the ridiculously over-the-top, emotionally shameless theatrics Mel indulges, turning a story that already fell into the “You wouldn’t believe it if it wasn’t true” camp into “You won’t believe it anyway, because it’s been turned up to 11” (and that’s with Gibson omitting incidents he perceived to be “too much”, such as Doss being shot by a sniper after he was wounded, having given up his stretcher to another wounded man; certainly, as wrung through Mel’s tonal wringer, that would have been the case).

Perhaps Mel should stick to making subtitled features, the language barrier diluting the excruciating lack of nuance or subtlety in his treatment of subject m…

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

What if I tell you to un-punch someone, what you do then?

Incredibles 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Incredibles 2 may not be as fresh as the first outing – indeed, certain elements of its plotting border on the retread – but it's equally, if not more, inventive as a piece of animation, and proof that, whatever his shortcomings may be philosophically, Brad Bird is a consummately talented director. This is a movie that is consistently very funny, and which is as thrilling as your average MCU affair, but like Finding Dory, you may understandably end up wondering if it shouldn't have revolved around something a little more substantial to justify that fifteen-year gap in reaching the screen.