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Steve Carell in the Sweet, Endearing ‘The Way Way Back’

Steve Carell in the Sweet, Endearing 'The Way Way Back'

Just when it seemed that the days of overpaying for Sundance
movies had ended, this year Fox Searchlight spent almost $10 million for the
very conventional-sound coming-of-age movie The
Way Way Back
. That deal sent me into the screening room recently wondering
if they’d lost their minds; I left thinking they’re smarter than ever. The film
is warm, engaging, and thoroughly charming even though we can predict every
turn in the story of  14-year-old Duncan,
who finds his inner, confident self over the summer.

 Among the few surprises: Steve Carell as Trent, who is
dating Duncan’s mom. The film begins (as you see in the trailer below) with Trent
driving Duncan, Duncan’s mother (Toni Collette) and his adolescent daughter to
his beach house for the summer. In the guise of being helpful, he berates Duncan
for being a  3 on the 10 scale of people ratings.
The more confident Duncan later  echoes
what we think right away: “Who says
that?”  Carell, as the bone-headed
bully who says that, is so willing to be unlikable that he reminds us what a
truly good actor he is.

 As Duncan, Liam James (he also plays Jack, Mireille Enos’s
son in The Killing) conveys the sweet
vulnerability of a kid just past the cusp of childhood, old enough to observe
and judge the adults’ dangerous liaisons without quite being there himself. He
is desperate to escape the adults in the beach house, even though their
intrigues are amusing to us. Allison Janney has the most attention-getting role
as Trent’s obnoxious neighbor, the kind of person who boozily calls attention
to her own drinking and thinks of  herself as fun. Rob Corddry’s character is
married to Amanda Peet’s, whose flirtatious dance with Duncan (“Enjoy
therapy,” Trent’s daughter says.) signals the start of her bad summer
behavior.   

 No wonder Duncan rides a bike — a pink girl’s bike he found
in Trent’s garage — and flees every day to an old-fashioned water park, Water
Wizz, where Sam Rockwell is the smart-ass manager who becomes his role model
and (to use a term wildly out of touch with the backward-looking feel of the
place) his  life-coach.  Despite the oddball setting, this is the most  ordinary, movie-fake part of the story. (In
real life, Duncan’s mother would be a whole lot more alarmed when an older man starts
driving her son home.) Rockwell’s stock character isn’t as engaging as the movie
seems to think he is, but the film is entertaining enough so we can let that go.
  

 The Way Way Back
was written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who wrote the screenplay
for The Descendants along with
Alexander Payne. While The Descendants
is a much richer film, The Way Way Back
shares its generosity toward its characters and its tricky balancing act: it’s a
commercial crowd-pleaser  that doesn’t
overdo the sentimentality.

 The directors are also actors, who have small roles as water
park employees. Rash, who plays Dean Pelton on Community, is nerdy Lewis here. Faxon (from Fox’s recently cancelled
Ben and Kate) is Roddy, who runs the
water slide and teaches Duncan how to ogle women inconspicuously. The options
for role models are very limited at Water Wizz, but then the film is less about
realism than escapism. Despite the retro park and the film’s title, The Way Way Back is not an exercise in
nostalgia. It’s an escape into an old-fashioned kind of movie — slight, sweet
and endearing.  

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