Tuesday, July 30, 2013

You May Not Have Watched "The Way, Way Back" Yet, But You've Already Seen It

There should be an official name for all of these seemingly genre-less, low-key films that occupy that transitive territory between comedy and drama, given how many of them pop up year after year.  The good ones, like The Descendents or The Kids Are All Right, are able to use that limbo to their advantage, playing our emotions like a maestro, as we alternate between laughing and crying.  Unfortunately, most movies think that because they're a dramedy, they don't have to do much of either part of that portmanteau, and instead we end up getting a film where people just kind of do stuff for a while and then the credits roll.  With that in mind, The Way, Way Back certainly falls into the latter category.

The extent to which this film is generic runs deeply.  You've seen everything that The Way, Way Back has to offer, and it basically functions like a composite of several other coming-of-age films.  We're introduced to Duncan, a gawky teenager who's embarking on a summer trip with his new stepdad (Steve Carell in a subdued role) and the rest of his blended family.  The film drops you in the middle of Duncan's situation, and there's not much in the way of exposition, but it's clear that there's a great deal of tension in this recent arrangement.  From there, it's just a rote tale about an awkward boy who meets a colorful cast of characters and works through his personal drama to slowly come out of his shell and snag the pretty girl.  Does anybody really need to see this kind of film anymore?  You can almost just check off the boxes when each element of this common framework comes along.  It even ends with what I like to call the "Indie Triumph," a small victory that signifies big growth for the protagonist.

What's most upsetting is that this could've been a great film.  There's nothing wrong with utilizing tropes, but it should at least be done well and bring something new to the table.  The film is littered with great performances -- particularly Allison Janney in a loose, broad role and Sam Rockwell playing a character whose manic energy masks a more soulful side -- but the problem is that they feel like they belong in a separate movie.  At its core, The Way, Way Back is a drama about being a child of divorce, but then there are all of these wacky characters that exist around the edges, and it just never gels together.  Some of the teen-angst is well-observed, and the water park setting is interesting, but just as the film comes close to clicking, it rushes to an unsatisfying conclusion.  I'm a fan of shaggy summer movies, but this one is just a bit too shaggy.  Jim Rash and Nat Faxon make their directorial debut here, and perhaps their scripts need a stronger hand to pull everything together, like Alexander Payne did with The Descendants.  With their new role behind the camera, everything is less assured, and The Way, Way Back is much more wobbly and trite because of it.

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