The Way Way Back – 3.5 stars

The opening scene, where our beleaguered protagonist Duncan (Liam James) has to endure a numeric assessment from his mother’s new boyfriend (Steve Carell, who deems Duncan a “3” on a 1 to 10 scale for his layabout ways) reveals a great strength and a great weakness of the film.  James, as an awkward, inward 14 year old dragooned to Carell’s beach house with his mother (Toni Collette) for the summer, exhibits all the hideous hallmarks of the age. He’s ungainly, goofy and paralyzingly shy.  Carell also keenly occupies his type – an exact, sly bully who masks his menace in the cause of trying to be a father figure.  Everyone time he says “hey, buddy”, it presages a cut, an attack, and therein lies the problem with this coming of age tale.  With Carell identified as a villain from the get go, little that occurs next is unexpected or fresh.

That said, the script, from the Oscar winning writers of The Descendants (Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who also co-direct) is assured.  The story of Duncan’s growth under the tutelage of Sam Rockwell, a comic guru who runs the local water park, takes pity on Duncan, and gives him a job, is the heart of the picture, and their banter is really very funny and often surprisingly touching.  As Duncan’s mother loses herself in Carell’s world, we know  Carell must be slayed.  While we wait for that inevitability, however, Faxon and Rash have a blast with the water park and all of its quirky characters (including both Faxon and Rash, who are both very funny as well).  Carell’s coterie at the beach are also well written, if not fully developed, with Allison Janney delivering the lion’s share of the killer lines, most of which are directed at her own son, who has a wandering eye she insists be covered up by a patch.

There is triumph and happiness at the end of the picture, as you knew there must be, but with a little more care and guts, the writers could have made a great film.  Instead, in the middle, they so vilify Carell that they do lasting damage to the story.  Duncan goes on a boat trip and Carell forces him to wear a ridiculous life vest while the much younger kid with the wandering eye is unburdened.  The cruelty is too much.  It robs Carell of any chance of being anything but a caricature, demeans Collette, and is so humiliating to Duncan that you start to lose sympathy for the kid.  I don’t think Faxon and Rash wanted Carell’s numeric assignment to find purchase with the audience, but that’s what they risked.

This film is a similar to, but not as good as Adventureland.

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