By Will Ashton
Actors Nat Faxon (Ben and Kate) and Jim Rash (Community) have already proven their versatile talents with their Academy Award-winning writing work in The Descendants.
So, for their next project, it should come to come to no surprise that the duo would not only write, produce and star in their next project, but direct it as well.
The transition from screenwriter to director has produced some very mixed results over the years. Some writers make great directors, and some… not so much. So, where do Faxon and Rash stand with their debut?
The Way, Way Back centers on Duncan (Liam James), an awkward, slightly depressed 14-year-old boy who is forced to live in Trent (Steve Carrell), his mom’s boyfriend, in his beach house in Massachusetts. In an attempt to find something to do, he stumbles upon the water park Water Wizz, where its owner, Owen (Sam Rockwell), takes him under his wing and employs him at the park. Through their misadventures together, Duncan is able to find himself and figure out how to blossom in the strange outside world that he live in.
The very first scene in the film shows Duncan and Trent riding up to the beach house, his mother and Trent’s daughter, Steph, sleeping, as Trent asks Duncan how he rates himself on a scale of one to ten. After some hesitation, Duncan picks six. Trent informs that, at least in his eyes, he is not a six, but rather, a three.
We, the audience, know that Duncan is probably not a three. And as the film progresses, he learns that he is, truly, not a three at all. The Way, Way Back is definitely no three, but it certainly isn’t a ten either. The biggest problem with this movie is that it how relentlessly cliché and predictable it is. There are very, very few elements about this movie that you won’t predict from a mile away.
While not every movie has to be a stunningly original piece of art, Faxon and Rash could have at least mildly changed up the formula a bit here. What truly saves this movie from turning into a mediocre and forgettable film is the overlaying level of sincerity that is produced throughout.
Being that they are actors themselves, it makes sense that Faxon and Rash were able to pull out some pretty great performances from its cast. In particular, Rockwell steals the show here, nailing both his comedic delivery and natural dramatic believability with so much effortless ease that he is simply a marvel to watch on screen. Additionally, playing completely against type, Carrell not only gives one of his best performances to date, but he proves that he may finally start playing some different type of characters in his career.
Also, Toni Collette provides another stellar performance here as Duncan’s mom, Pam. Her performance is naturally heartfelt and feels genuinely realistic. And, as one of the movie’s most directly comedic elements, Allison Janney is hilarious as Trent’s neighbor, Betty.
As great as these performances are, there are sometimes held back by how one-dimensional their characters can be. In particular, Trent is written as too much of a jerk for his own good. Not only does it make it unbelievable that Pam would see anything redeeming in him whatsoever, but, without showing any signs of a softer side, he makes him seem less a person and more directly an antagonist character. Thankfully, the subtleties that Carrell brings to his performance fleshes him out and makes him seem more like a real human being.
The second thing that holds the movie back is James himself. While not completely terrible, his performance is definitely the weakest of the cast. Which, considering that he is the main character, creates quite the problem. He can do awkward pretty well, particularly dancing as such. But he does not depict all that much range, give or take a couple scenes towards the end.
Beyond its performances, what really saves the movie is just how funny it all is. The Way, Way Back is easily not only the second funniest movie I have seen this summer, behind This is the End, but it’s also the second funniest movie that I have seen so far this year. Faxon and Rash know an important rule of comedy: it’s not so much what happens in a scene, it’s who it happens to. The comedy of this film is directly centered around the characters, but it never feels the need to become too goofy or try to hard to make the audience laugh. The jokes come across as natural, and, therefore, produce some truly funny scenes.
The directors also prove that they can make some good dramatic sequences too. But the problem becomes that these two different types of scenes make for a pretty uneven film. The movie continuously goes from a scene completely played for laughs, to a heavy weighted drama scene with much rhyme and reason. Should they continue to direct, this is something that I feel will come more naturally to them. But, given they are still first time directors, they still have some kinks in their armor to work on.
I think Duncan got it right the first time when he considered himself a six. The Way, Way Back does very little, story wise, to separate itself from the clichés and tropes that have been done to death in these type of movies. But, at the same time, it’s charming as hell, has a solid script, and it’s clear that Faxon and Rash have a lot of care for both these characters and their stories. It’s not going to be the best little movie of the year, but it may end up being one of the most likeable.