The Way, Way Back

First draft outline
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2013
Director: 
Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Starring: 
Liam James, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, AnnaSophia Robb
The Setup: 
Teen boy has significant summer.
Discussion: 

With nothing else to see, my movie buddy Howard and I decided we might as well see this, which got tepid reviews, but promised to be amusing enough, and has Steve Carell looking hot with a seven o'clock shadow, and Howard's favorite Sam Rockwell. And it has Toni Collette, who I would watch wringing dish towels for two hours. And it's by the writers of The Descendants, which turned out to be much better than anyone ever expected. But it just turns out to be a bare-bones story with undeveloped characters who all have preciously cute character quirks.

We open with Carell as Trent in a car passing through a greenscreen pasted-in environment, with our hero, fourteen-year-old Duncan in the way, way back of the station wagon. Trent asks Duncan to rate himself on a scale of one to ten, then pronounces him a three, because he needs to not be shy and "get out there." Mom Pam, that's Collette, is taking Duncan on vacation to Trent's summer home in some unspecified beach town. Trent is her new boyfriend, and Duncan wishes he could be with his real father. Trent has a daughter of his own, who turns out to be one of those undeveloped characters who soon all but drops out of the movie.

Their neighbor at the beach house is boozy Allison Janney, who is amusingly overbearing in a sitcom-ready way. She has a sullen daughter in Susanna, who is a pretty blonde who inexplicably doesn't want to hang out with the other girls in her peer group, and a son with a lazy eye, who she mercilessly draws attention to in a way that is supposed to be wacky. Soon Duncan, the sky kid, is laying atop Trent's car singing REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling Anymore," which--okay, maybe fourteen year olds actually listen to early 80s rock pop. But the conceit is stretched thin when Susanna also knows the song, and artist. I doubt any of us would get the same results if we asked fourteen-year-olds to name early 80s rock-pop songs, and it was enough to make both me and Howard wonder if this story was supposed to be taking place in the 80s, which it easily could, except that Duncan was wearing iPod earbuds.

So Duncan is alienated. Trent is a subtle bully who has one-sided conversations with him and constantly calls him "buddy." He makes Duncan wear a huge life vest when no one else is, because he can't swim. Part of the idea here is that the adults are acting in an irresponsible way, drinking and smoking pot, leading Susanna to call the town "spring break for adults." Soon Duncan sees Trent almost giving in to the attentions of Amanda Peet, another welcome actress given little to do by the script. Duncan rides into town and ends up at a water park run by Sam Rockwell as Owen, who is a nonstop purveyor of wacky commentary and wisecracks. Owen offers Duncan a job, and soon he is there all day, everyday and his mother doesn't insist on knowing where he is. He keeps his job a secret from them until the end.

As an example of how this movie is composed only of special, significant moments turned up to eleven, Duncan's first job at the park is to stop a group of kids who have gathered to krump-dance. And when he tells them they have to stop, they ask him to show them his moves. So he dances, and the other kids help and accept him. He meets a variety of wacky water park employees, each just a little distinctive in a sitcom way. Things continue, special moments occur, and Duncan finds a place of acceptance and growth at the water park.

SPOILERS > > >
Soon it's sudden conflict time as Pam, who is gradually becoming more aware of her reservations about Trent, gets pissed off at his stifling adherence to rules when playing Candyland. Then Trent stays out all night. He said he was on his friend's boat, but within 12 hours it is revealed that his friend's boat has been in the shop! Duncan chooses to reveal Trent's infidelity in the middle of a group of adults, demanding that his mom do something, but she doesn't. He goes to the water park, where they are having a party, and ends up staying all night. By the way, Owen himself has had a mini-drama in being upbraided for being a slacker, and abruptly changing and trying to assume more responsibility.

It's time for meaningful dialogue in the morning, as Duncan finally opens up to Owen about his home life. He returns home, and Mom has decided to leave the summer house and return home, but with Trent and his daughter. It's kind of feeling like things are abruptly wrapping up when they have only just gotten going. They stop at a gas station near the water park on their way out of town, and Duncan jumps out of the car and runs to the park! He wants to perform a stunt to pass Owen on the water slide! Yes, NOW, right NOW, as they're headed out of town! It's young adult contrivance time! He does! The entire park cheers! His mom sees that he is a beloved employee of the park: THAT'S where he has been going all these days! Trent is still a dick! Duncan gets to say goodbye! Then, as they're back in the car and in front of the greenscreen, Mom leaves the front seat and climbs into the way, way back with Duncan, symbolizing that she will soon dump Trent! The end.
< < < SPOILERS END

It is a genial movie and it passes time pleasantly. It's just that it had the potential--and certainly the cast--to be so much better. It really feels like a first draft outline of a script, meant to be filled in later. Every character, and every moment, is just the wackiest, most quirky thing ever, which makes the whole thing feel like a very contrived sitcom when it is trying to have the natural feel of real life. Whole characters just come to nothing, particularly the blonde hottie next door who, for no discernible reason, doesn't hang out with the other pretty girls and pursues Duncan as a friend and then--this thread comes to nothing. Allison Janney pretty much vanishes from the film after a while. Her son with the lazy eye has no meaningful role. And then, as mentioned, the whole thing wraps up at the very moment one has started to feel like something is actually happening. It makes you wonder why The Descendants was so good, and makes you reflect on how that movie had a well-defined set of characters, and the movie had themes that unfolded, and all of the characters had arcs, and when you got to the end, you really felt that you had taken a substantial emotional journey.

Still, if you have to watch something... you should find something on Netflix. But when this is on Netflix... you could still probably find something better, but this is amusing enough. Toni Collette, as usual, is able to bring a lot of depth and shading to a thin role. It's nice to see Steve Carell be a dick, and nice to see him unshaven, but his role is the definition of one-note. The movie could also be improved by having him wear a Speedo the whole time. The awesome Amanda Peet: wasted. Sam Rockwell runs with what he has to work with, which isn't all that much. WHY doesn't this guy have a TV series in which he's a cop with a terminal illness who gives him a fuck-all attitude that emerges through constant wisecracks as he brilliantly solves cases but can't commit to the one woman who truly loves him? He enlivens every movie he's in (Oh, and as Howard justly queried when we were discussing this very thing: Where is Steve Zahn? WHAT happened to him?). This movie has all the actors you want to see, then gives them almost nothing to do, and rewards your time in only the barest way. Do not pay money to see it.

Should you watch it: 

If it's on some sort of free medium and you honestly have nothing better to do.