The Way, Way Back is so formulaic that it almost seems like a parody of coming-of-age dramedies. It tries too hard to be this years Little Miss Sunshine or Juno, but those films put an original twist on a common story. This film is generic and has nothing new to say about being an awkward teenager. The conventional approach wouldn’t be so bad if the movie were funnier or more entertaining, but the jokes often fall flat and the screenplay is too uneventful. Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell might be the only saving graces of the movie, both of whom give solid performances, but their talents are worthy of a better script.
Duncan (Liam James), an awkward, unconfident fourteen year old is forced to spend summer break with his mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) at Trent’s beach house. What seems to be shaping up to be an endless summer of dread takes a turn for the better when romance sparks between Duncan and his pretty blonde neighbor Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), and he gets a job at a local water park where he is taken under the wing of park manager Owen (Sam Rockwell).
A film like this relies heavily on characterization and therefore on the performances of the actors. Liam James isn’t particularly engaging in the lead role. He’s meek and mopey, which is the point, but even when he begins to learn confidence at the hands of Owen, his newfound aplomb is unconvincing. It’s mandatory that this kid has a character arc by the end of the movie, but two months working at a water park with a bunch of 30-something slackers who give him life lessons doesn’t seem like enough to necessitate a complete personality shift. Not to mention, the water park setting makes this feel like an adolescent version of Adventureland.
As previously mentioned, the standouts of the film are Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell. Steve Carell plays against type in a role that couldn’t have less in common with the lovable buffoons he usually plays. To sum it up, who knew Steve Carell could be such a d*ck? Trent is a lying, cheating, manipulative a-hole who mistreats both Duncan and his mother. In the opening scene, Trent asks Duncan, “What would you say you are on a scale of 1-10?”, Duncan answers, “I don’t know… a six”, “I think you’re a three” Trent responds. There’s nothing about this character on paper that would make one think “Steve Carell would be perfect for this!”, so the casting is inspired and Carell shows real acting chops. Rockwell’s Owen is the consummate wiseass who shirks all responsibility, throws caution to the wind, and views his job and life in general as one big joke. Of course, he has a bigger heart than he lets on. When he notices the lonely and sad Duncan at the water park, he decides to hire him, taking on the role of mentor and teaching Duncan to come into his own. Contrary to Carell and his character, Rockwell has played this sort of character many times before, but he’s tailor made for the part and the level of fun noticeably amps up when he’s onscreen. Carell and Rockwell elevate the material, but it’s a shame they aren’t surrounded by a better movie.
There’s some illogicalities with the finale that I can’t get into without going into spoiler territory, but why does every indie need to have an ambiguous ending? It’s come to a point where filmmakers use an enigmatic conclusion because they deem it more intelligent, but it’s often more of a copout. The best use of such an ending is when it’s germane to everything that preceded it, but there’s no point in being inconclusive just for the sake of it.
Writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash riddle their script with coming-of-age cliches. Why does every town in the movies have an attractive young blonde who finds the average looking gawky boy to be so endearing? Why are the adults always whacked out of their skulls while the kids are levelheaded? Faxon and Rash aren’t without talent, they won an Oscar for co-writing The Descendants, but this movie is lightweight and misguided compared to that one.
For the undemanding, the movie will probably be a big crowd pleaser. For what it’s worth and in all fairness, the audience at the screening I attended seemed to eat it up. I wasn’t sure what everyone else found so funny. The jokes were cheesy and the story was bland. So maybe it’s me, and I’ve been known to be a contrarian before, but aside from some good performances I found The Way, Way Back to be way, way too familiar.