Nat Faxon & Jim Rash’s very funny The Way, Way Back is an undeniably familiar tale. It is a “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” coming-of-age story that feels reminiscent of both ‘80s comedies like The Flamingo Kid and more modern, similar stories like Adventureland. There’s nothing groundbreaking here by any stretch of the imagination but it’s not always the freshness of the joke but how well it’s told that matters. It would be easy to get overly critical regarding the familiar beats of this crowd-pleaser but that would miss the point. It’s a funny movie with a great ensemble performance, a sweet heart, and a note-perfect ending. There’s a reason Fox Searchlight spent over eight figures in Park City to pick it up. They’re going to make a fortune with it, taking the same path to success as Little Miss Sunshine or Juno, films to which this heartwarming flick deserves comparison.
The Way, Way Back sets its stage well in the first scene. Trent (Steve Carell), the new boyfriend of Duncan’s (Liam James) mom Pam (Toni Collette) asks the young man to rank himself on a scale of one to ten, suggesting bluntly that his self-appraisal of a six is about double what Trent considers of the teenager. Trent is a smarmy prick and poor Duncan is going to have to spend a summer with him, his mom, and Trent’s snarky teen daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) at a beach house. Trent & Pam spend their days on the sand and their nights partying with other vacation home owners like Betty (a scene-stealing Allison Janney) and Kip & Joan (Rob Corddry & Amanda Peet). Of course, The Way, Way Back is one of those comedies in which the adults are as immature and annoying as the teenagers. Maybe even more so.
Duncan immediately tries to escape the annoying grown-ups in his life, drawing close to a girl his own age named Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) and getting a job at a local water park after a few encounters with its charismatic owner, Owen (Sam Rockwell). Disappearing every day to play with the less pretentious grown-ups at the water park (which includes charming supporting work from Maya Rudolph, and Faxon & Rash), Duncan gets some self-esteem and realizes the only rank that matters is the one he assigns himself.
Rockwell delivers the kind of engaging, charismatic, hysterical performance that used to define the work of Bill Murray in the ‘80s in films like Stripes. He’s a fast-talking, quick-thinking comedy force and his performance is the one that everyone who loves The Way, Way Back will most fondly remember. The teenagers – especially James & Robb – are quite good but the drama of the non-waterpark adults is underwritten and poorly developed. I love Collette and she does a lot with very little here, and Carell actually plays smarmy more deftly than fans of his lovable persona may expect, but the film sags a bit every time it leaves Rockwell or the teenagers.
Luckily, those moments of creative sag are few and far between. Faxon & Rash prove to have a gift for comic timing as directors as well as writers. The Way, Way Back takes no risks but also makes few mistakes. Those who demand a challenge from their comedies need not take this trip but those just looking for a satisfying, funny, sweet laugher (an increasingly rare genre) will find plenty to like.