It’s a pretty good gig, when you come to think of it. After years of acting and working in television, friends Nat Faxon and Jim Rash hook up with Alexander Payne of Sideways fame, adapt a script from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel The Descendants, and the trio walks away with Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay. Oh yeah, and they got to hang around George Clooney as well (sorry – mancrush is in full bloom right now…). So what do you do as a follow-up? Do you head back to the boob tube, or try to capitalize on your newfound fame to forge your own way into moviemaking? Well, that’s exactly what Faxon and Rash have done with the serio-comedy coming-of-age effort The Way, Way Back. Unfortunately, like most novices to the cinematic process, our duo bite off a bit more than they can chew, creatively, and end up crafting an awkward, schizophrenic experience.
Our down in the dumps hero is 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) who is stuck for the Summer with his emotionally distraught mother Pam (Toni Collette), her on the rebound boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and his snooty teen daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). He likes to visit his beach house on the Atlantic coast and our lead would prefer to spend time with his friends back home, or better still, his distant father. Once they arrive, they are immediately accosted by Trent’s drunk neighbor Betty (Alison Janney) and her enigmatic if stuck up kid Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).
Looking for some relief from adults acting like adolescents, Duncan wanders over to the local water park where he is befriended by the free spirited manager Owen (Sam Rockwell) and his gal pal Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph).As he starts to come out of his shell, he gets a job at the attraction and quickly becomes something of a minor celebrity. Everything appears to be looking up this Summer when Duncan is suddenly faced with a crisis. His mother’s partner may be cheating on her, and even more disconcerting, Susanna has turned from indifferent to intrigued over her new neighbor.
It’s easy to point out that The Way, Way Back is no Descendants. It’s better to say that it’s not even in the same league as that amazing cinematic celebration of life, death, and family. Granted, the presence of one Mr. Clooney could make even the most mediocre material acceptable (cue: The American) but here, without Payne and without proper perspective, Faxon and Rash fall, and fall hard. Put another way, Greg Mottola covered similar territory with his far superior ’80s flashback Adventureland. He understood that angst, be it pre-teen or pre-adulthood, needs to be moderated by a bit of self-awareness, since the rest of the world is apparently functioning without having to hold its head in its hands (at least, in public). But Duncan is such a downer, so lost in his own unique brand of selfishness, that he’s hard to root for.
There’s also a disturbing dichotomy present that seems to suggest the 1960s – that is, the goofballs are good and the Establishment sucks. Trent and his sphere of influence are viewed as uptight trolls trying to recreate their youth via pot, body shots, pleasure boats, and secret sexual escapades. When they get together, it’s like watching the opening scenes in a softcore porno. No one is serious or responsible. On the other hand, everything about Rockwell’s world – his lax attitude, his attentive ‘partner’ Caitlyn, the other weirdos and nonconformists who function as employees in the park – all suggest a place completely foreign to the reality of life in 2013. Mottola made an effort to balance out his amusement park retreat, giving it both pros and cons. Here, Water Whiz is such wonderstuff that you couldn’t imagine anyone leaving its comforting, cocoon-like confines.
As for the acting, it’s equally disproportionate. The minute she appears onscreen, you’ll either adore Janney or wish she’d overdose on a combination of cheap booze and her own ego. Her character is such a loudmouthed bore, a harpy trying to cover up her obvious sadness with cloying “coolness” that you want a wave to sweep in from the shore and drag her out to sea. Similarly, Ms. Robb is a one note object of desire. She’s got the prerequisite jailbait look, but none of the necessary personal allure. Granted, Duncan’s no dish, but at least he has a pulse. Susanna is all spaghetti straps and overdone lip gloss.
Better are Collette and Carell. The latter knows he is playing a complicated cad and doesn’t go for the easy laugh. Instead, he’s proud of his pompous assessments, calling his soon to be stepson a “three” in the one to ten scale of attraction. As for Collette, she gets the complicated story arc, and therefore, the most scripted meat to chew on. Sure, her last act decisions seem a little incongruous, but for the most part, Pam is a character we can get behind and support. The clear winner in the performance parade is Sam Rockwell, however. Since he has all the one liners and eccentricities, he’s more or less showboating, but no one does braggadocios better, and thanks to a terrific support cast at the Whiz, he’s humanized and brought into check.
The result is a baffling bifurcated experience that’s never really satisfying, no matter the side your sentiments fall on. If you love the family stuff, visiting Rockwell and his merry band of crazies will wear on your nerves. If you think that everything at the water park is wonderful, you’ll immediately start to squirm in your seat whenever Trent and his crew come around. With both sides never really finding an aesthetic truce, The Way, Way Back falters. Some will find it an evocative journey back to their own awkward wonder years. Others will lament its lack of originality, or joy, or purpose. Hold onto that Oscar, guys.