The Way, Way Back is the kind of summer comedy that throws enough curve balls at you to make what’s old new again. A tad dark around the edges and sophomoric in the middle, it’s a sweetly affecting coming-of-age drama with flourishes of Wes Anderson and even the Farrelly Brothers. That should come as no surprise since it’s co-written and co-directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash who, along with director Alexander Payne, received an Oscar for the effectively droll George Clooney comedy, The Descendants.
The surprise here is Steve Carell, who plays against his usual big screen persona as a feckless nice guy and is more like his irritable jerkwater boss on NBC’s The Office. His Trent, a middle-aged divorcée, decides to bring his new girlfriend Pam (Toni Collette) down to his summer house on the shore of some idyllic and fictional Massachusetts beach town. In tow are Trent’s diva daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) and Pam’s introverted son, Duncan (Liam James). The Brady Bunch this is not.
From the onset, Pam feels out of place among all of Trent’s boozing beach buddies, and Duncan wanders about as an eternal outcast. He harbors an adoring eye for the slightly sassy girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb) whom he feels is out of his league because she pals around with his prospective stepsister. During the vacation, Pam cooks, Trent invites his gang over, and they all drink until they pass out. Trent’s also got a wandering eye and a penchant for belittling Duncan.
Sick of the indulgent malaise, Duncan covertly takes up a job at the Water Wizz amusement park, where the other half (townies and the cheap seat vacationers) roll in to find their slice of summer Eden. The wacky park manger (Sam Rockwell) fills in as an unconventional but effective older brother figure and instills Duncan with the necessary self-esteem to approach Susanna (Robb).
Susanna and Duncan’s awkward intermingling is palpable and moving enough. Together, they try to make a connection and navigate their youthful angst, which is continually exacerbated by their parents’ dysfunctions and need for alcohol. Pam’s dilemma too, as a lonely single mother looking for her chapter two, is affecting. Collette, always on her mark, gives a subtle but nuanced performance in the fairly thankless role.
If there’s any shortcoming to the film, it’s that the two first-time directors try to do too much. You can almost imagine their excitement while penning the script, but when it came time to shoot they just didn’t have the discerning eye to help shape, hone, and cut. Ultimately the film settles on Duncan’s quest to find himself and some solace during the summer from hell. Yet it’s also about Pam and her desires, the arrogant Trent and his freewheeling beach crowd, and their opposites over at the Water Wizz, which has its own set of zany characters (Maya Rudolph, Faxon, and Rash in bit parts). That’s not even mentioning Trent’s perennial partners in crime Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet), who have truckloads of baggage and closets full of skeletons. It’s just too busy.
The rompish silliness over at the Water Wizz sometimes feels like a stilted vignette from the woeful Grown Ups, which was also shot in Massachusetts and has a sequel coming out this week. But despite its flaws, The Way, Way Back is a satisfying, good-time film with lots of heart.