If there's one positive result from distributor Fox Searchlight's decision at the Sundance Film Festival to pay nearly $10 million for "The Way, Way Back," it should be this: It will remind people about "Adventureland," a far superior movie about an awkward, frustrated teen spending his summer working at an amusement park.
In writer-director Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's version of the tale, uneasy 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) gets hauled by his single mother (Toni Collette) to a beachside vacation with her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell). While resenting the situation and wishing he could go visit his father instead, Duncan meets rascally water park employee Owen (Sam Rockwell), who slowly coaxes Duncan out of his shell. Pop music montages and tear-filled spats introduce occasional flashes of emotion into the proceedings, but "The Way, Way Back" mostly just harkens back to better versions of its hackneyed plot.
Fox Searchlight's generous offer for "The Way, Way Back" calls to mind a similar movie the distributor's similar deal for "Little Miss Sunshine," another understated semi-comedy co-starring Carrell that cost the company around $10 million. But where "Sunshine" at least generated unique chemistry divided among a cast that ranged in age from early seventies (eventual Oscar winner Alan Arkin) to 10 (eventual Oscar nominee Abigail Breslin), "The Way, Way Back" exclusively relies on familiar tropes: the disgruntled teen, the disillusioned single mom, the bad boyfriend and the usual turn of events that brings the tensions between these characters to the surface. Will Duncan eventually confront his mom about the issues drawing them apart and learn to speak up for himself? Take a wild guess.
Actors Faxon and Rash (who also appear in the film in bit parts) recently won Oscars for co-writing Alexander Payne's "The Descendants," a far superior movie about family bonds falling apart. In "The Way, Way Back," most scenes involving Duncan's developing maturity take the form of cheesy montages as he grows more comfortable with the older gang of high-energy staffers at the water park. At night, he retreats to Trent's beach house, where the shady man condescends to Trent in a continuing failed bid to win his affections.
A modicum of comedic inspiration comes from Alison Janney in the minor role of Betty, Trent's foul-mouthed alcoholic neighbor, whose loopy delivery shows a respectable commitment to energizing the material. Rockwell is similarly enjoyable as the kind of lively, fun-loving character he does best. Against these forces, relative newcomer James can't keep pace, although it's not entirely his fault: Duncan is a terribly underwritten creation whose restrained, moody personality lacks depth. But you still feel for the guy as he grapples with whether or not to share with his mother the revelation that Trent has another woman on the side.
Carrell, on the other hand, is terribly miscast in an uncharacteristic turn as the mean-spirited philanderer. He's given not a single funny line or gesture, which might be the single most counter-intuitive decision of the summer movie season. The actor hinted at hidden dramatic potential with the underrated "Dan in Real Life," but here he's a bland creation blatantly out of place in formulaic proceedings.
Even so, "The Way, Way Back" doesn't scream mediocrity -- it just settles for a familiar trajectory and rarely abandons that safety zone. Most of Duncan's developmental progress emerges from the time he spends at the water park ogling women, learning to dance and eventually smile. Centered on the cultivation of simple laughs and rudimentary heartstring tugs, the filmmakers' screenplay unapologetically assembles a series of unremarkable incidents.
This is the sort of Sundance movie that absorbs an inordinate amount of attention for its presumed marketplace value. I suppose it's there in the neat arrangement of familiar faces, giddy vibes and simple narrative. Some of the smaller touches point to a slightly better movie hiding beneath most of the routine, particularly with the nicely muted finale that stops just short of the clichéd resolution expected of it. On the whole, however, "The Way, Way Back" dances to a tune we've heard too many times before.
Criticwire grade: C+