The Way Way Back | Directors Nat Faxon & Jim Rash | Score: 5.7
A sullen 14-year-old, driving in the back of a huge station wagon en route to a beach summer is asked by his mother’s new boyfriend how he’d rate himself on a scale of 1-10. At first, the kid doesn’t answer, out of shyness or stubborn insubordination, but when the boyfriend persists, he eventually grants himself a six. “Well, I think you’re a three,” the boyfriend replies.
Avast! There be a coming-of-age story in our midst. The kid, Duncan (Liam James), is forced to endure many more such adult-dispersed humiliations at the hands of Trent (Steve Carell), and his gaggle of similarly irresponsible friends at Trent’s beachside cottage on the coast of Massachusetts. His mother, Pam (Toni Collette), is so into her new man, she ignores the warning signs that he might already be straying away with the wife (Amanda Peet) of his dear friend (Rob Corddry); and no matter how many times Duncan’s boozy new neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney), does something inappropriate, all the other adults just laugh with her and refill their drinks.
Fortunately, Duncan, a stoic and lumbering sort of kid, is quickly outfitted with unlikely reinforcements. There’s Betty’s comely daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), a member of the beach bunny crowd, but also into reading actual novels on the beach, which, I suppose, is meant to explain how she can still take a shine to him; and, more significantly, Owen (Sam Rockwell), a ne’er-do-well, madcap bachelor who runs the nearby waterpark and quickly hires Duncan on. Even as Pam begins to struggle under the somewhat oppressive regime of Trent, her son is making strong inroads into becoming a man of his own.
Actors turned writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have attempted to churn out a summer coming-of-age comedy, but what the novice storytellers don’t factor on is how unlikeable they make their main protagonist. It’s a bit like watching comedy-classic Meatballs, but entirely from the prospective of bumbling, ostracized Chris Makepeace, instead of Bill Murray. Duncan is such a reticent drip (he goes out for a day on the beach in a pair of tuffskins that his mother bought him), the film has to bend far over backwards in order to give him the necessary ‘people who believe in him.’
If we, as a movie-going audience, can’t fathom why both the hottest girl on the beach and the coolest dude at the waterpark are somehow irresistibly drawn to the kid, it doesn’t really matter how many allowances they make for the character, it’s very difficult to buy. In fact, the entire early premise of the film — a couple who have only started dating within the past year agree to forego their regular jobs and spend an entire summer together on the beach with their respective children — is suspect. We are told early on that Pam works as a caterer, and that she and Duncan share a small Albany apartment. Apart from everything else, why would she agree to miss a caterer’s biggest season she presumably desperately needs in order to put far too much pressure on a relationship that’s only just begun?
The film plays it fast and loose with respect to its adult characters. Faxon and Rash avoid comic caricature, but don’t really present us with realistic depictions either (Trent, for all his misdirection, seems to really care about Pam until its conveniently revealed he doesn’t). There is a startling contrast to the sad, boozy, over-enthusiastic adults at Duncan’s house and the happy, boozy, genuinely enthusiastic adults who all work at the water park (Faxon, whom has to be pushing mid-30’s still ogles young teen girls with his crooked teeth that in any other context would be thoroughly creepy). One group is insincere and unable to come to terms with the realities of their lives, the other is carefree and fun-loving and seem to have none of the hang-ups and responsibilities of adult life.
Worse yet, as much as it plays at being funny — Janney and Rockwell play their characters with so much gusto you’re afraid for their lives — at its heart it’s nothing of the sort. It wants to be both an absurd summer jam, and a serious adult melodrama with kids caught in the crossfire. As a result, it’s neither. Like a sullen teen unable to express themselves with even the least amount of precision, it staggers on very uncertain legs.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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