As of July, this is my single greatest disappointment of 2013. Not because it was bad (it wasn’t), but because it could have been great.
Every actor crushes their role: Collette, Rockwell, Carrell, Rudolph, Janney and AnnaSophia Robb are magical. So is Liam James as Duncan. Plus, the emotional weight carried in Robb’s Susanna, Collette’s Pam, Rockwell’s Owen, Rudolph’s Caitlin and James’ Duncan each could have made for a moving storyline.
On top of that, there are some truly hilarious moments in this film, starting with three boys getting stuck in a waterslide and Owen choosing to solve the problem by having a bowling ball of a man knock the three boys loose.
Even better, these funny moments are quickly coupled by deeply touching ones. In the above water slide example we go from the hilarity of a ridiculous plan to the emotional explosion of Rudolph’s Caitlin accosting Rockwell’s Owen before a large crowd. I thought the transition, as in most cases in this film, was seamless.
But, in the end, despite these amazing elements that should have bred a truly memorable and relatively inexpensive masterpiece, this one fails to deliver. On several levels.
First, the pacing is off. The writer/directors, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, spend way too long in the set up, focusing too much on the domestic oddness of Duncan’s situation. The opening scene, in which Carrell’s Trent calls Duncan a three out of ten gives us everything we need to know about the family situation. Trent is a jerk. Pam is disconnected, but Duncan needs his mom to have his back. We get it. But the film doesn’t move on. It spends another twenty minutes showing us the same things.Yes, in these twenty minutes the film also establishes the nature of Kip (Rob Cordry) and Joan’s (Amanda Peet) connection to Trent, and now Pam, but that doesn’t relieve the offness of the pacing. It’s too slow, wallowing too much in Duncan’s social awkwardness and discomfort and too much in the adults’ immaturity.
Then The Way, Way Back finally moves into acts two and three and gets Duncan to Water Wizz where he quickly develops a kind of kinship with Owen. The problem? These acts are too fast. Much too fast. Duncan’s changes come too quickly and feel too unnatural because we aren’t given enough time to digest the Water Wizz setting and it’s eccentric characters.
The fourth and fifth acts are well paced, but the film could have been better with fewer scenes in the first act and an equal number of increased scenes in the second and third.
Moreover, Trent (Steve Carrel) is almost unbearable. There is nothing likable about this character. He’s insentitive, unfaithful, delinquent , neglectful as a parent of his own daughter (Steph played by Zoe Levin) and overbearing as a would-be step father to Duncan. None of this is Carell’s fault. Quite the opposite. Carell is the only thing that makes the character something other than pure evil. Carell adds a touch of softness, tenderness and sadness to a character the script doesn’t. Rockwell has the flashiest performance, but because of how badly written Carell’s character is, I think the latter is the film’s best actor. Serioulsy. In the end, though, Carell can’t do enough to make me not notice that the writers have seriously screwed up. Superhero pictures can get away with having characters who possess no “good” traits. Introspective coming of age stories that are trying to pack an emotional punch cannot. The viewer needed to see something about Trent that wasn’t deplorable. Maybe he’s a terrific father to Steph, rather than a terrible one. Maybe he’s a deeply helpful man who constantly makes others feel great about themselves but who still self-destructs. Maybe he’s obviously well intentioned but uncouth with people. Whatever it was, Trent needed to be somewhat sympathetic to work. In other words, we could understand why Duncan, a 14-year-old boy, hates Trent. But we should not have hated him just as much. Not for this kind of feature to work.
Alternatiey, if Faxon/Rash just had to, for some odd reason, make Trent this vile, then they needed to spend less time on him. As it is, he is too present for such an evil jerk – I quickly tired of him and, despite Carrell’s skill in playing him, I lost interest in the scenes that featured him. Which is to say . . . each time the villain appeared, I disconnected a little.
To me, the most interesting character in this film was Susanna, Duncan’s would be love interest. She was complicated and something of an enigma. I wish we had been given more time with her. And far less time with Trent.
I also wish we had spent less time with Susanna’s mother, Betty, the second seriously flawed character. Again the actor, Allison Janney, does everything she can to make us almost like Betty, but, again, the writers/directors screw up. Betty is a terrible mother, a drunk and an unbearably intrusive neighbor. There is nothing to like about her either.
And yet. Faxon/Rash capture Duncan, Pam, Owen, Caitlin and (to a lesser extent, because she’s less important) Steph fantastically well. These characters have more than one depth, strengths and flaws. Each, in their own right, is sympathetic and complicated. Each delivers, at turns, serious emotion. Some of this is the actors. A lot of it is the writing. It disappoints me some, because it only further highlights the flaws in Trent and Betty’s characterization.
Finally, as a minor comment: I think the soundtrack included universally great songs. I do wonder though: were the lyrics too literal? Do they encroach into telling not showing territory? I don’t know.
If the writers/directors had been a bit more balanced in their approach to Trent, this picture could have been better than Mud. Significantly. It could have been as good as 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook. Maybe even 1980’s Ordinary People (probably my favorite film of all time). The Way, Way Back could have been fantastic.
As it is, however, it is merely adequate. And that’s a huge opportunity lost.