Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Way, Way Back review

The coming-of-age movie, it seems, was most popular in the 1980's, when director John Hughes was around making classics like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. After Hughes death, very few directors seemed to want to make movies about the teenage experience. But, starting in 2011, that all seemed to change. It took a long time, but with JJ Abrams' Super 8, the genre started to creep back into the mainstream. In 2012, Steven Chbosky's The Perks of Being A Wallflower became the first film to truly bring back the coming-of-age movie. And now, in 2013, there are three films from Sundance that feel like they could have been made by the master himself: The Kings of Summer, The Way, Way Back, and The Spectacular Now. One of those films, The Way, Way Back, was directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who wrote Alexander Payne's The Descendants, one of my favorite films. They have an uncanny ability to blend the dark and light together and make a film that is so uncomfortably fun to watch. So it's safe to say that I was really excited for The Way, Way Back.

The Way, Way Back tells the story of Duncan (Liam James), a fourteen year-old introvert who is forced by his mother (Toni Collette) to take a trip with her and her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) to a small beach town. Duncan hates Trent and can't stand any of his drunken, pot-smoking friends (Allison Janney, Rob Coddry, Amanda Peet) either. However, Duncan grows out of his shell when he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell) and starts to hang out at the waterpark Owen operates. Soon, Duncan is falling in love with Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) and becoming himself in way that he never has before all thanks to Owen. 

I love Faxon and Rash's The Descendants (they wrote it), as I previously said. I think that it's tragic, funny and sweet, all at the same time. It's so genius in its mixing of tropical paradise and crushing despair that you just can't help but be hooked. In The Way, Way Back, Faxon and Rash attempt to find a similar tone and sometimes do achieve their goal. But you just can't help but think that they did it much better in The Descendants. The Way, Way Back is a comedy with a dark final 30 minutes. The Descendants is a dramedy. There is the fundamental difference between these two films. Faxon and Rash, while charismatic on screen, just don't add that same blend of drama and comedy to their directorial debut as they did to their Oscar-winning screenplay. 

I'm sorry, this might get a little old, but I will keep comparing this to The Descendants because I know what these two guys can do and this movie really let me down. It's still entertaining and passably fun, but it's not the same kind of achievement that the 2011 film was. 

In addition to tonal issues, The Way, Way Back has some major script problems. The romantic angle between Duncan and Susanna is way underdeveloped. I mean, it's just crazy underdeveloped. I really think that it would have helped if Faxon and Rash had just shaved that entire sub-plot off the film. There's no need for it to be there, and it didn't enhance the story at all. There's the problem. This movie has a lot of stuff that doesn't enhance the story at all. For the first hour, every adult in the film is completely wasted. It's funny at first but it gets tedious after a while. There's no need for it to be there. It would have been more fun if all the adults put down the kids all the time. Steve Carell's Trent is the closest to entertaining of all the adults in the film because he's just a jerk. The others are just drunk, which isn't entertaining. 

However, in addition to a slow start, those are the only real problems with The Way, Way Back. They're big problems (if script and tone don't bother you, you'll love this), but they're still the only problems that the film has. The acting is spot-on. Sam Rockwell is the best thing about this entire film, followed closely by Steve Carell. Liam James is the centerpiece of the entire movie and he is good, but a little too mopey at times. Toni Collete gives surprising depth to her character and Faxon and Rash themselves are good in their roles. 

In addition, all the stuff at the waterpark is great. It's a lot of fun to watch Duncan come out of his shell and the character of Owen is really entertaining. Another problem I had is that we don't know a ton about the characters. I thought that some were very interesting and it was a shame that I didn't learn more about them. However, it was nice to just let the relationships develop and not worry about back-story so much. The central characters of the film are very entertaining and you do care about them in the end. 

The film also has a very subtle way of making you care about its characters. I liked Duncan, and I liked Owen, but I didn't know that I cared about what happened to them until the spectacular end of the film. The film is subtle and doesn't go too over-the-top in trying to make you care about everyone involved. 

However, despite a lot of good stuff, I just wasn't all that engaged by The Way, Way Back. It's a Sundance comedy through and through. It has cute characters and a cute setting and it's fun. That's about the best I can say about it. I'm not saying that every film has to have a hard edge to it, but The Way, Way Back wants to have one, but doesn't have one. It wants to mix drama and comedy, but despite being the best part about the film, the dramatic edge isn't all that interesting. It's too formulaic and doesn't have enough compelling, unique things in it for me to be really wowed by it. It's too similar to almost any coming-of-age movie before it. 

The Way, Way Back is a fun little movie that you won't remember a week from now as it's too soft, too cute and not as memorable as any other dramedy of the last few years. I know that this might have been a standard too high for The Way, Way Back to meet but I know what Faxon and Rash are capable of. I know that they can mix the two genres together with awkward ease. And in The Way, Way Back, they kind of dropped the ball on that. 

THE FINAL GRADE:  C+                                          (6.4/10)

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