Kurt Loder Movie Reviews

The Way, Way Back

On the beach with Sam Rockwell and Steve Carell.

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The Way, Way Back is a sunny wonder, a movie made for virtual pocket change (less than $5-million) that effortlessly out-classes such floundering box-office behemoths as The Lone Ranger and White House Down. The script, by actors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who also directed (and gave themselves a pair of funny supporting roles as well), is a feast for the lively cast, and you can feel them reveling in it. Soon you are, too.

The movie captures the great American seashore vacation – the breezy boat docks, the twilit dunes, the grownups cocooned in a boozy haze while their children die of boredom – in all its torpid glory. Steve Carell plays Trent, a self-regarding car dealer who has driven in from Albany to spend the summer at the big shake-shingle beach house he maintains not far from Cape Cod. With him are his grumpy teen daughter Stephanie (Zoe Levin); his similarly divorced girlfriend Pam (Toni Collette); and her 14-year-old son, a slumpy introvert named Duncan (Liam James, of AMC's The Killing). Trent and Pam have been together for a year, and Trent has let it be known that marriage is in the offing. Pam longs for that sort of stability, and she has forced herself to ignore Trent's cold arrogance, especially toward her son. (Ranking Duncan on a scale of one to 10, Trent pronounces the hapless kid a three – to his face.)

Carell weaves not a thread of comic embroidery into this unpleasant character, and he never seeks to outshine the movie's tightly-meshed ensemble. James gets most of the movie's face time (he's a little listless at first, although not for long); but its real star – through sheer force of improvisational spirit – is Sam Rockwell. He plays Owen, the coolest employee at a local amusement park called Water Wizz. When Duncan, desperate for something to do, wanders into this merry place and Owen spots him as a sad sack in need of shoring up, the movie really takes off. Rockwell flicks out quips like firecrackers ("What happens in the tubes stays in the tubes!" he informs some young patrons at the top of a big waterslide), and he's a master of spiraling verbal anarchy (the scene in which he baffles a crowd of kids with an extended riff on an '80s pop song they've never heard of is all the more brilliant for coming totally out of the blue).

Like most of the film's other characters, though, Owen is more than just a snappy-patter machine. He has worked too long at the water park, and his patient girlfriend, a fellow employee named Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph), is growing weary of waiting for him to get his life together and move on. Back at the house, we meet a blowsy neighbor named Betty (Allison Janney), whose husband left her for another man, and who is now doing battle with middle age on a roiling sea of cocktails – she's funny, but we can see she's just trying to cope in the only way she knows how. Betty's teenage daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) befriends the lonely Duncan and shares his dismay with all the alcoholic summer antics going on ("It's like spring break for adults," she says). There's also Betty's feisty little son Peter (River Alexander), who won't let an eye patch hold him back, and a wandering wife (Amanda Peet) who finally throws Trent's real character into harsh relief.

The story is a familiar comedy archetype (it's "The Summer I Came of Age"), and the movie's low-key sweetness recalls such films as Adventureland and Little Miss Sunshine (in which Carell and Collette also featured). But the characters are subtly detailed, the situations are freshly engaging, and Rockwell, who has never been bad in anything, has rarely if ever been better than he is here. Fans will recognize this as a serious recommendation.  

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  1. Cool. I’ll go see that.

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  2. the movie’s low-key sweetness recalls such films as Adventureland and Little Miss Sunshine

    I never saw Little Miss Sunshine, although I’ve heard a lot of people liked it. I did see Adventureland and thought it sucked ass. Although that might also have to do with how it was marketed. Most trailers and promos for it made it seem like Clerks set in an amusement park with all the over the top antics, swear words, and dick and fart joke one would expect. It turned out to be some sappy coming of age tripe. If they had been more honest in their marketing I might not have been as disappointed. But then I probably wouldn’t have seen it in the first place.

    1. If you didn’t like Steve Zissou or The Royal Tennenbaums, you probably wouldn’t like Little Miss Sunshine. It’s in the same off-beat, sometimes cringe-inducing mold. It’s good if that’s your thing though.

  3. Just saw Man of Steel. Excellent movie. None of the critics’ complaints held water. At 2 hours and 23 minutes, it seemed short and never dragged. Too much action, not enough romance and comedy? When I go to see a film about a super-powered being, I want to see him using those super powers, not cracking jokes or falling in love. Weak story or script? It all held together and kept everything moving.

    Seriously, I think most critics complained because they wanted to see the 1978 version remade, instead of someone else telling their own take on the story.

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  5. Very nice movie, for other vacations theme movie, I also suggest that old classic “The Great Outdoors” with Dan Aykroyd and the late John Candy.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FvYtbd7YE3k

    And the National Lampoon’s Vacations movies.

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