Way, Way Back To The 80s Jul08

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Way, Way Back To The 80s

Everything about Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s The Way, Way Back wants to be set in the 80s. From the “vintage” cars, to the clothing, to the location, to Sam Rockwell’s exceptional mining of Bill Murray’s wise man-child mystique, we’re half expecting a boat race to solve the plot complication.

That’s fine with me because I happen to have a warm feeling for coming-of-age summer flicks from the Reagan Administration and The Way, Way Back doesn’t require a nostalgic whimsy to be enjoyed.


14-year-old Duncan, played with the right amount of pathetic by Liam James, is stuck in hell – a family summer vacation at the beach house of his mother’s condescending louse of a boyfriend.

Steve Carrell plays against type as the kind of insecure weasel that purposefully degrades Duncan to keep himself as “the man” in Duncan’s mother’s life. It doesn’t help that Duncan’s mother (Toni Collette) is basically lost. She’s still licking the wounds of a fresh divorce and too afraid to move on in life on her own.

Duncan knows this but at 14, what is he supposed to do but bare it in silence? That’s exactly what he does, enduring one embarrassing situation after the next.

The “adults” around him are children with wrinkles and the children his age are oblivious ego machines. The only saving grace might be the alcoholic neighbor’s daughter who seems to exist on a similar wave length but it’s not like he’s confident enough to approach her.

It’s going to be a long summer.


Well it was, until he stumbles into a water park run by Sam Rockwell.

It’s here, in Act 2, where The Way, Way Back develops into a winning coming-of-age story. Prior to Rockwell’s introduction, the set-up is entertaining enough but feels a little too familiar, save for the scene-stealing presence of Alison Janney. Rockwell is no doubt familiar too (you know, Bill Murray in Meatballs and all) but his character is so enjoyable, so effortlessly endearing it doesn’t matter.

Even though the plot, written by Faxon and Rash, follows a terribly predictable pattern (i.e. first love, standing up to his mom’s boyfriend, etc.) Rockwell’s presence elevates the material to that rare sublime state where we know where it’s going but it’s so much fun we don’t care.

Rockwell could be, and probably should be, looking at a Best Supporting Actor nomination in February. He owns every frame like Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder or Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids.

The only caveat here is that Carrell’s given a short shrift. His character has one note (douchebag in the key of me) and since the story wants to repair the fractured relationship between Duncan and his mother, he’s little more than a static villain.

Other relationships are so well observed that the material feels like it should be a little more inclusive of the group as a whole.


That being said, it’s a tiny regret that may be idiosyncratic to my taste. The Way, Way Back is a delightful, genuine effort that succeeds on almost every level. You could do a lot worse with your film-going dollar.