Writers/directors Nay Faxon and Jim Rash certainly provide the audience with intriguing characters in The Way, Way Back, each with an interesting storyline, but they fail to tell enough of any one story.
Socially awkward fourteen-year-old Duncan (Liam James) is dragged to the beach for summer vacation by his insecure mother (Toni Collette) and her overbearing boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). Along for the ride is Trent’s stuck-up teenage daughter (Zoe Levin) who wants nothing to do with Duncan.
Trent and his daughter are regulars in the beach community that includes Alison Janney as the gossipy, intoxicated neighbor with a daughter (AnnaSophia Robb), who sees Duncan for the person he wants to be, and a son with a lazy eye (River Alexander) who manages to participate in some of the most entertaining conversations of the film. Trent seems more interested in entertaining his old friends (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet) than building on the new relationships in his life.
So Duncan eventually heads off to the local water park, which was also the hangout for Adam Sandler and the other Grown Ups in 2010. There, Duncan is hired and befriended by the comedic Owen (Sam Rockwell) who is pretending to run the place. Owen teaches Duncan to lighten up and helps him to come out of his shell. Maya Rudolph plays the mature counterpart to Owen but her comedic abilities are wasted for the most part.
Where this story really goes way, way back is in its similarities to other efforts. The relationship between Duncan and Owen is very similar to that of Tripper (Bill Murray) and Rudy (Chris Makepeace) in Meatballs. Rockwell even referenced Murray’s character in Meatballs as a source of inspiration in an interview. You will also get a sense of Youth in Revolt and Adventureland when travelling way, way back. The difference is that those three films were more focused on the lead character and his respective story. In The Way, Way Back, it takes too long for Duncan to get to the water park, and we don’t spend enough time there.
Duncan does eventually come out of his shell and others in the film experience change, but it simply needed to be focused more on Duncan and his experiences, so that the audience can truly appreciate his growth.
There are some fine performances though many are one-dimensional. There is enough well-written dialog to illicit both laughter and cringing.
Recommendation: The Way, Way Back is not a bad film, and in a summer that is thus far full of bad films, it certainly will stand out, but ultimately, we’ve seem similar stories told better.