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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Review: The Way Way Back



Jim Rash has been a favorite of ours for quite some time. He's the only standout remaining on Community in his role as "The Dean", and his first foray into motion picture screenwriting (with Nat Faxon) produced the wonderful (and Academy Award Winning) "The Descendants", one of the more touching looks at mortality and family connection that I can recall. I was excited to get a chance to see his directorial debut with his partner Faxon in this coming of age comedy "The Way Way Back". Rash, as a comedic writer, produced one of the better scripts of this past season of Community, an otherwise deplorable affair. It would lead one to the conclusion that Rash and Faxon's comedic chops are fairly strong. It's with regret that I must dissuade you, dear reader, of this notion.

"The Way Way Back" is the story of Duncan (Liam James) who is going on a trip with his mother (Toni Collete), her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell) and his daughter (Zoe Levin) to the beachhouse owned by Trent. While Duncan's relationship with his mother is strong, his introverted ways are a sticking point in his relationship with the much more gregarious Trent. On a bike ride through town and into the beach, he happens upon Owen (Sam Rockwell) who befriends him and talks him into coming to work at the Wizz World Water Park in which he is the manager. At the same time, Duncan strikes up a friendship with the daughter of their kooky neighbor (Anna Sophia Robb and Allison Janey respectively), and through these two growing relationships, he's able to steel himself against a rising tide of turmoil in his family life.




In its opening scene, "The Way Way Back" produces a terrifically inventive sequence to introduce you to its lead and the conflict that will rear its head throughout the film. Duncan, as seen above, is riding in the back of Trent's car and Trent asks Duncan to rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10. The ensuing conversation is awkward, a little sad, and reflects what works best about the film. Duncan projects the type of gawkiness that all teenage males go through around the age of 13 to 15. Through this difficulty we as an audience are able to relate to his struggle of personal acceptance with who he is and what kind of man he wants to become.

Much like Rash and Faxon's work in "The Descendents", its this type of dramatic area where the film succeeds the most. When Duncan is embarrassed by his mother's behavior with Trent while on vacation, it feels authentic and earned, when Duncan attempts to kiss a girl and she turns her head, it works, and when Duncan connects with Owen, their breezy chemistry makes sense, at least to an extent. The film does begin to overplay its hand when familial drama cracks open a little too wide when Duncan overhears a conversation he shouldn't have, and Owen has a realization that feels more convenient to the plot than anything that could be construed as natural. But generally, the writer/director team has a good understanding of human emotion and letting the audience peek into a family on the verge of a breakdown.

The problem with "The Way Way Back" is that it's just not that funny. Characters that are portrayed for comedic effect are far too larger than life to the point of being cartoon characters, and the situations presented simply aren't humorous. Unless you find it a hoot that Duncan can't break dance, or that the neighbor's kid has strabismus, or that Owen calls a set of teenagers weird nicknames, you'll likely find little to enjoy from the comedic side of the film. Not coincidentally, the only times I even cracked a chuckle came from Rash himself, playing a long-time employee of the water park who just can't seem to find anything else to do. Much like on Community, Rash is the lone comedic highlight.

From a performance side, there isn't much of note but Collette and Carrell do their darndest and carry alot of the dramatic weight where it's needed. Carrell's Trent is particularly well-rounded.  James is a solid lead and at least feels less "actor-y" than many other "twenty year olds cast as teens" that would often populate this kind of fare. Rockwell has his moments, but starts to overstay his welcome before the credits roll.

"The Way Way Back" relies a bit too much on formula, just when you think it may break free of a few tried and true coming of age conventions. It's earlier thoughtfulness is let down by lazy solutions and understandings. By the end, you're surprised that there isn't some kind of "Wonder Years" style voiceover about how this was the best summer of his life. It basically reaffirms what I like best about Rash and Naxon's writing, strong drama, but now puts me on guard regarding their comedic chops which I find a bit lacking. "Adventureland" did all of this already but alot better, stick with that if you're looking for a well-rounded coming of age tale involving a theme park.

I give it a C+
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