Last Friday I mentioned something I’d heard about Gavin O’Connor and Ben Affleck‘s The Way Back, a sports redemption drama about an alcoholic basketball coach. The thing that I heard (and that I shared) is that “it’s not Hoosiers.” I saw it the night before last, and it isn’t.
But you know what? In some ways Brad Inglesby‘s script is as dramatically reputable as Hoosiers — it’s rooted in a real, recognizable, occasionally unfair world of fundamentally decent but occasionally flawed people. And O’Connor’s direction is respectably lean and dutiful, pared-to-the-bone and bullshit-free.
And Affleck’s lead performance…well, he certainly knows what it’s like to be a middle-aged drunk, doesn’t he? That authority and experience filter through. The cynicism, the swearing, the hair-trigger eruptions, the lethargy.
And the film itself is definitely decent. Not levitational but sturdy. I’m giving it an eight. Not an eight-point-five but an honest eight.
Because, for the most part, it isn’t Hoosiers. It’s a step-by-step story about a guy with a serious problem, and while it’s embroidered and punctuated with basketball issues and strategies and the usual ups and downs, it doesn’t turn on the game. It turns on what Affleck’s character, a divorced construction worker who gives up boozing after taking a coaching gig for the same South Bay basketball team that he gloriously played for in the early ’90s, does about his addiction.
It’s not a “let’s man up and put our problems behind us so we can win the playoffs” drama — it’s an emotional (and psychological) saga of a guy who’s furious about something ghastly that happened to him and his ex-wife, and about how he copes with this terrible scar on his heart and soul.
Does he (or more precisely can he) leave the past where it is and live as best he can in the present? Or not? That is the question.
I loved how The Way Back isn’t afraid of Jack’s rage and subliminal longing for self-destruction — it digs right down into that pit. It isn’t the least bit tidy or sanded down or escapist.
What didn’t I like about The Way Back? The horrible San Pedro atmosphere, for one — the blue-collar resignation, the sight of distant harbor cranes and the constant sound of drilling and construction machinery and the hilly typography and the faintly run-down pre-war bungalows and the atmosphere of fog and moisture and the faint flickerings of despair. What a ghastly town in which to exist! (Notice I didn’t say “live” — the best you can do in a town like San Pedro is mark time and hope for a “get out of jail” card.)
If I was somehow stuck in San Pedro (or wherever the hell the film was shot…Carson? Signal Hill?) with no chance of escape, I wouldn’t embrace alcoholism but I’d be sorely tempted to find some form of escape. The whole ugly South Bay sprawl…later.
Another thing that bothered me is a decision to use a certain family tragedy, conveyed around the halfway mark, to explain Affleck’s boozing, and, we’re told, why he had turned to the bottle before and why it only takes a little sharp prodding to make him jump back in. It’s called “laying it on a bit thick” or, you know, overly precise cause-and-effect plotting.
Back in the early ’90s I passed along a boozing story (not my own) to my father, who’d became an AA devotee in ‘75. He found it darkly amusing. It was about a mild-mannered AA dilletante who’d been in and out of sobriety for years, but who notably began bending the elbow again because things were going so well in his life. He felt that the Gods were being so nice to him and so amazingly gracious and charitable that he could celebrate this fact without paying the price. “Wow, the sun is shining and things are going so great…I can start drinking again and have a lot of fun in the evenings, like I did in high school and college!” Hilarious.
Critic pally: “That’s not only a great story but it’s quite typical of something. Drinking because you think things are going just great is one of the best excuses for (functional) alcoholism out there. You’ve mastered your life, and you will master the drinking! Insidiously, that’s part of how it masters you.”