Back in 2012, “The Descendants” took home the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, and most people were probably surprised to see Alexander Payne (a previous winner for “Sideways” and nominee for “Election”) flanked by Dean Pelton from “Community” and that dude from “Club Dread.” For the first time in Payne’s career he had not collaborated with his usual co-writer Jim Taylor, but instead rewritten a previously existing screenplay by the aforementioned Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (which was in itself an adaptation of a novel). Many assumed that it was Payne’s award to take home and the other two were just lucky to be standing up there. But with their directorial debut (and second screenplay) for “The Way, Way Back,” Rash and Naxon prove that it was no fluke.
Inspired by the duo’s summers spent at the beach, going to waterparks and avoiding their parents, the film is a coming-of-age comedy that should easily be a sleeper hit for whichever studio picks it up. (It was the only film this writer has seen this year at the fest to receive a standing ovation. After 4 or 5 days packed with arthouse dramas, even Sundance audiences just want to laugh.) The title is named after the back row in the family station wagon – it’s a term that should be familiar to anyone who grew up in the ’70s or ’80s – where we meet our protagonist, 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), a pale wallflower on his way to the beach for the summer.
Duncan is asked by his mom’s boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell, playing against type) how he would rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10 and tells him that he is a “3,” pretty much as cruel a gesture as you can lay on an insecure 14-year-old. (This was inspired by a real incident with Rash’s stepfather when he was that age.) Trent and Duncan’s mom Pam (Toni Collette) have been dating for about a year, and in an effort to coax Duncan out of his shell, Trent has inadvertently made his potential step-son even more of an introvert by constantly picking at him. It’s jarring to see Carell playing a guy who’s such an asshole, so much that in early scenes you want to forgive his horrible behavior because you think you’re supposed to be laughing with him.
At the beach house, the family splits off into different factions, with Trent’s daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) heading to the beach while the adults – including sun-baked chatterbox neighbor Betty (an absolutely hilarious Allison Janney), Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet) – get drunk and act like children. “It’s spring break for adults,” says one character. Duncan eventually makes his way to the local water park where he gets a job and befriends his much older co-workers Owen (Sam Rockwell, at his most Sam Rockwell-iest), Caitlyn (the always delightful Maya Rudolph) and Roddy and Lewis (Faxon and Rash). Owen is immature and seemingly carefree and becomes a mentor to Duncan, slowly building his confidence throughout the summer. Duncan also connects with neighbor Susanna (Anna-Sophia Robb) whose parents are also divorced.
Though it’s probably the most overtly commercial film this writer has seen at the festival, it’s not without a few rough edges. Carell’s character is certainly a darker one than we’ve seen from him before, and that may be a tough sell for audiences used to the actor playing sunnier types. Duncan is a few steps more reserved than your typical Hollywood loner, he’s nearly silent in the early section of the film and it takes him quite a while to really start coming into his own.The biggest knock against the film, really, is that you’ve seen countless versions of this story before (the similarly themed “Adventureland” comes to mind). But these little touches are what set the film apart from larger studio fare. (“Night At The Museum” director Shawn Levy was attached to an earlier version of the film, and one shudders to think what he might’ve done with it.)
Rash and Faxon are both former members of the famed improve troupe The Groundlings, which has produced comic talent ranging from Will Ferrell to Phil Hartman among many, many others, so it’s not unexpected that the film is very funny (just clock the speed at which hilarious things come flying out of the mouths of both Rockwell and Janney’s characters). But what’s even more impressive is that the film still aims for the heart and isn’t just a series of gags strung together. Comedy is hard all on its own, but comedy that resonates is a rare thing indeed. So it’s admirable that Rash and Faxon are continuing to head down that path they started with “The Descendants,” even if this film isn’t quite as refined. On the surface “The Way, Way Back” is as mainstream of a crowd pleaser that’s graced Park City all week, but by drawing from their experiences, they’ve made a film that entertains and still has a personal stamp. [B]