[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. The Way, Way Back opens today in limited release.]
In their directorial debut, The Way, Way Back, writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash show they’re incredibly adept at humor. They know how to tell a good joke, push the envelope without being mean-spirited, and find the right actors to deliver the comedy. Unfortunately, a film has to put story and characters above all else, and the film fails where it matters most. Faxon and Rash put a painfully tedious character at the center of their movie, and then try to convince us that anyone would help their uninteresting protagonist. Filled with one-dimensional characters moving through a predictable plot, The Way, Way Back can tell a joke, but has difficulty doing anything else.
Duncan (Liam James) is being dragged to the beach house of his mom’s mean-spirited boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). Duncan seems content to quietly and sullenly endure the summer, but his mom, Pam (Toni Collette), is intent on keeping him in tow so he can spend time with Trent’s friends Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet), and their drunken, comically inappropriate neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney). The morose 14-year-old manages to break free when he comes into the orbit of the freewheeling Owen (Sam Rockwell), who helps give the kid some much needed confidence by hiring him to work at the water park, Water Wizz.
The biggest problem in The Way, Way Back is that we simply don’t want to root for Duncan. Faxon and Rash clearly want us on the kid’s side. We’re supposed to want him to fight back against Trent, get together with his attractive neighbor Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), and have the best summer ever. If they hoped to accomplish this, then they should have cast a more sympathetic lead, and spent less time watching him mope around. Furthermore, they fail to give Duncan an ounce of potential. We’re left to wonder what Owen and Susanna could possibly see in Duncan. He’s got as much presence as a deck chair except deck chairs are useful. He doesn’t seem nice or mean or much of anything. But the plot demands that a colorful character like Owen transform the lump of a person into the cool kid.
Rockwell almost makes it work. The magic of Sam Rockwell is that he can play the same character again and again, and make it feel fresh every time. Rockwell is once again playing a fast-talking, quick-witted, slightly sleazy, nevertheless endearing rogue, but he still gets the biggest laughs in the movie. He has instant chemistry with anyone on screen, and when we see him do his thing, it’s easy to forget the character’s unimaginative and predictable purpose. Faxon and Rash even attempt to give Owen a personal conflict regarding his feelings for his co-worker (Maya Rudolph), but that subplot is so underdeveloped that it’s rendered meaningless. The Way, Way Back is Duncan’s story, and it’s not a particularly interesting one.
Faxon and Rash are constantly adding window dressing, but never put their emphasis on making Duncan a compelling character. They have Steve Carell playing against type, but it’s a novelty that quickly wears off, and the character offers no surprises nor does he elicit any sympathy. He’s simply a bad guy who’s wrong for Pam. Janney is given the freedom to chew the scenery like crazy, but there’s no reason to complain when she’s providing some of the movie’s best moments.
But it all comes back to character and plot, and The Way, Way Back doesn’t have enough of either. Even the jokes only come from a handful of characters, and when they’re off screen, we’re still stuck with dull old Duncan. We know how his summer is going to end, and rather than coming off as an 80s throwback, Faxon and Rash’s film simply feels stale. The Way, Way Back does have laughs, but it needs more than comedy to develop into the charming and heartwarming crowd-pleaser it aims to be.