Starring: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney
Directed by: Jim Rash (debut) and Nat Faxon (debut)
Written by: Jim Rash (“The Descendants”) and Nat Faxon (“The Descendants”)
In 2011, writing partners Jim Rash and Nat Faxon burst onto the scene by taking home an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the film ‘The Descendants.” Known mostly for their bit parts in TV and film, the two collaborated with veteran director Alexander Payne (“Sideways”) and became a hot Hollywood commodity following their success. Going behind the camera for the first time, Rash and Faxon unleash their directorial debut, the coming-of-age summer tale, “The Way, Way Back.”
In the film, 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) goes on a summer vacation with his mother (Toni Collette) and her annoying boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) who criticizes Duncan whenever he can. When they get to their beach house, Duncan feels out of place, finding only a little bit comfort when talking to his neighbor, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb). While exploring the beachtown, Duncan stumbles across Water Wizz, a waterpark run by a fun-loving and mildly lazy man named Owen (Sam Rockwell). As Duncan begins secretly working there, he finally finds a true connection with Owen and a hide out where he doesn’t feel like a complete loser.
Led by James, who is in nearly every scene the film, the young actor seems far less experienced than his past screen experience would indicate. His delivery throughout the film is incredibly unnatural and although his character is clearly meant to be an awkward teenager, James’ performance seems more on the side of a poor performance. While some of the secondary cast like Rash and Faxon are decent, the ever-reliable Rockwell keeps the film at a watchable level. Even though Rockwell’s character isn’t the strongest written, his on-screen charisma, which has become so consistent in his career, works like the film’s life vest and keep it’s head above water. His overgrown laziness and wit really work in some of his scenes with James. As one of the most under-appreciated actors working today, Rockwell simply needs somebody to give him the opportunity to shine in a bigger role.
As a whole, there is a certain unpolished sense that lingers through “The Way, Way Back.” Much of the dialogue is cliché and jokes frequently miss their mark. The film is also filled with half-hearted relationships that are never fleshed out or explored beyond surface level. Duncan’s relationship with Susanna and particularly Trent ring completely untrue. In fact, the only believable relationship is between Duncan and Owen, who really find their chemistry when they share the screen.
The film wraps up with a scene involving a waterpark legend that ends up being anti-climatic and lame rather than the larger than life moment it shoots for. When all is said and done, one really wonders how much work Payne did on his own for “The Descendants.” “The Way, Way Back” is in dire need to have someone else go through it with a finely-toothed comb. Rash and Faxon’s hearts may be in the right place, but even with Oscar statues in hand, their work as storytellers on their own is average at best.