Film Review: The Way Way Back 

Capitalizing on Gen X nostalgia provides little traction in this lukewarm film about teen angst.

click to enlarge If puberty isn’t awkward enough, try being a 14-year-old in the 1980s with a lousy script to act from — or so says the look on actor Liam James’ face.
  • If puberty isn’t awkward enough, try being a 14-year-old in the 1980s with a lousy script to act from — or so says the look on actor Liam James’ face.

The Way Way Back | C

Why does Toni Collette end up with so many weird wardrobe choices? OK, we get it, she’s an unconventional actress, but enough with the headscarves already! More tragic than the clothes she wears, however, is the doormat of a character that screenwriters Nat Faxton and Jim Rash (Oscar-winning writing partners of The Descendants) saddle her with in their summertime comedy The Way Way Back.

As a 1980s divorcee, sticking her toe back in the relationship pool, Collette has dragged her introverted 14-year-old son Duncan (Liam James) to a beach house owned by her new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). Trent is a car salesman, and the kind of boorish, straight-talking douche bag that tells his girlfriend’s kid that, on a scale of 1 to 10, he’s pulling a 3. He’s also banging his best friend’s wife. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The story is really centered around Duncan, one of those sad-smart teenagers who just needs a little female attention and a wise-cracking mentor to blossom. Oh, hey, look there’s Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the neighbor’s jaded but dreamy daughter who becomes curious about the awkward boy next door. And there’s Owen (Sam Rockwell), the Bill Murray-esque manager of a local amusement park called Water Wizz. He’s all too happy to offer Owen a job and impart some irreverent Duncan as he presides over a staff of oddballs … and too-good-for-this-movie Maya Rudolph, who is slowly losing patience with his snarky man-child act. Dirty laundry is aired, insight is gained, and a very good ensemble (including Ron Cordry, Amanda Peet and the always funny Allison Janney) makes a bland coming-of-age summer flick a little bit better than it deserves. Isn’t it all so bittersweet? Not really.

I liked the movie better when it was called Adventureland. Sure it was mopier without the benefit of Rockwell’s manic sarcasm, but director Greg Mottola filled his autobiographical reminiscence with enough nuance and specificity to make his movie feel textured. The Way Way Back (a great, if not unfulfilled title, by the way) is just a poorly developed Sundance-style “indie” that can’t decide if it wants to be Meatballs or The Flamingo Kid, but seriously wants to cash in on some clichéd Gen X nostalgia.

Still, some praise must be given to a cast that valiantly ups the ante. Collette carves out something human from her nothing role; the hilariously boozy Janney and smartass Rockwell steal almost every scene they’re in, while Carell defies expectations as an irredeemable asshole. Poor Liam James mostly registers as a blank slate, but I can’t blame the young actor. (Faxton and Rash have written him as a ‘80s archetype rather than a flesh-and-blood human being.)

There’s the hint of a more interesting story buried within The Way Way Back’s banal and predictable script. A film that explores the painful and ridiculous challenges facing an emotionally uncertain mother and her angsty teenage son as they simultaneously try to engage with a world that has plenty of dramatic and comedic potential; but that would require attentively developed characters, something Faxton and Rash struggle to concoct.

If wistful summer days at the beach, spent listening to radio hits like REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” transport you back in time, well, maybe this movie will resonate with you. The story and characters certainly won’t. mt

The Way Way Back opens in theaters on Friday, July 12 and is rated PG-13, with a running time of 103 minutes. Check local listings for times and dates.

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