Nat Faxon and Jim Rash‘s The Way, Way Back (Fox Searchlight, 7.5) is as good as nearly everyone has been saying so far. Not so much a coming-of-age drama as a Tale of Two Dads, it boasts on-target performances (particularly from the great Sam Rockwell and Allison Janney), a relaxed and confident freshness (even though the dysfuctional-family-on-vacation setup is familiar as hell) and a first-rate script — smart, adult, layered, zingy. There’s just one problem — one significant thing that doesn’t happen. And it’s a killer.
Liam James (an interesting if overly recessive actor) is 14 year-old Duncan, whose life is frequently made miserable by Trent (Steve Carell), the bullying asshole boyfriend of his mother (Toni Collette). The irony is that Trent is on Duncan’s case for being a hider and an avoider, which is precisely the kid’s problem. Trent earns his dick badge because he thinks he can harass the poor kid into waking up. (He’s a diluted and more personable version of Robert De Niro‘s asshole in A Boy’s Life.). On top of which he’s a bit of a philanderer. Was Trent a warm-up exercise for Carell before he played a much darker role in Bennett Miller‘s Foxcatcher? Or was it a followup?
Anyway, they’re all on a summer vacation somewhere in the vicinity of Cape Cod (pic was shot in Wareham, Onset and Marshfield, Massachusetts) and Duncan bikes over to a water park (an actual, real-life place in East Wareham called Water Wizz) and meets Owen, a 40ish smartass and a bit of an adolescent who co-operates Water Wizz with his impatient wife (Maya Rudplph). Owen isn’t so much of a “character” as a dispenser of flip one-liners by way of Rockwell’s hipster ‘tude. And you just know he’s going to smoothly befriend Duncan and hire him as a Water Wizz pool guy and gradually become the Good Dad.
Once the Owen-Duncan bonding began, I started preparing for the inevitable conflict scene between Rockwell and Carell. Not a Sylvester Stallone duke-out but some kind of needling scene. Rockwell drops by the house for a barbecue and sizes up Carell and vice versa and they go at it like they’re in a Harold Pinter play or on Real Time With Bill Haher. I wanted to see this mano e mano happen so badly I could taste it. Randall P. McMurphy vs. Nurse Ratched! The only question was when. When nothing happened in Act Two I said to myself, “Okay, that’s a little odd but I guess Faxon and Rash are going for the Big payoff.” And then Carell and Rockwell finally meet at the end of Act Three and…holy dogshit…it doesn’t happen! Okay, something happens (a good thing) but not what I was looking for. I was crestfallen. And I haven’t recovered to this day.
I don’t get why Duncan decides not to tell his mom and Tent about his waterpark job, but he doesn’t for some reason. What’s wrong with working? Better than lying around and gaming all day, right? I loved Janney’s colorful, alcoholic next-door-neighbor — a hoot — and AnnaSophia Robb‘s subdued performance as her daughter, Netty, whom Duncan develops the hots for once Owen prods him out of his shell. All in all The Way, Way Back is definitely an above-average film of this type. I’m glad I saw it and attended the press conference last week at the Crosby Street Hotel and got to talk to Faxon and Rockwell, etc.