Review: The Way Way Back (2013)

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Kyrie Eleison along the road that I must travel…” ~ Mr. Mister

Liam James is undoubtedly a kindred spirit to many young men because he’s the epitome of awkward. His posture is terminally awful. He has no confidence, no presence, his hair could use a trim, and he’s pale and unassertive. He doesn’t even have a go-to dance move, heaven forbid. He’s the kind of kid who wears jeans to the beach in the throes of summer.

But that’s what we have at face value. The problem is he plays into the narrative that others have written for him and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Take Trent (Steve Carell), the man Duncan’s mother (Toni Colette) is seeing. He calls the boy out on his apparent lack of social skills and criticizes him for being a 3 on a scale from 1 to 10.

That’s what Ducan has to go up against as his makeshift family travels to the beachfront for summer vacation. It looks like a dead end, several months that Duncan will simply have to survive tagging along awkwardly with Trent’s self-absorbed teenage daughter or getting systematically belittled by Trent in small ways.

And yet this same summer that looks like a veritable disaster ends up becoming the most formative time in Duncan’s life because in the thick of all the bad stacked up against him he is introduced to a world of so much good. It’s one of those moments of sheer happenstance. He begins riding a pink bicycle around town to get away from the suffocation at home and finds himself crossing paths with everyone’s new favorite friend Owen (Sam Rockwell).

They meet over a Pac-Man game and it’s awkward. Because every conversation Duncan has is awkward (ie. He talks to his pretty next-door neighbor Susannah about the weather). But not about to give up on a kid in need of some camaraderie, Owen lets the lad into his life and offers him something remarkable: A job helping him at the water park Wizz World.

In itself cleaning up vomit and stacking chairs isn’t the image of a perfect summer. But by reaching out and giving Duncan something, Owen impacts someone else more than he will ever know. Because that park represents so much for Duncan. It’s the family he’s struggling to find. It’s his fountain of confidence. It provides him a much-needed platform where even he can be cool and be known by others. That’s what we all want, to be known and appreciated.

That’s why he returns again and again. In fact, it’s so apparent how often he rides off that Susannah (AnnaSophia Robb) follows him one day and the rest is history. This girl who is different than her peers begins to take an interest in his paradise because she sees a confidence and enthusiasm in him that never existed before and she too seeks an escape.

Meanwhile, Duncan’s home life is still a shambles. Things are shot to hell as Trent is cheating on his mother and their vacation gets quickly terminated. He’s unhappy with it all and there’s very little his mother can do about the situation. Forced to say goodbye to the best family he ever had, there’s still some satisfaction in one last trip to the water park.

He emblazons his name forever in the lore of Wizz World and he gets the joy of Owen facing down Trent. Perhaps most importantly, the ride in the way-back of the station wagon is a little less lonely on the return trip. His mother has made the concerted effort to be by his side which is a statement of her new resolve to hold their family unit together.

This film is a dream. No one would go so far as to say that this is the dream summer or the dream job but it is a bit of a fantasy and we wish it could be true. Because Wizz World much like Adventureland (2009) before it is an oasis from the worries and distractions of the world at large. It’s one of those places frozen in time year in and year out, in this case, stuck permanently in the 1980s. But this Neverland, far from stunting your growth, helps one teenager discover more of his confidence than he ever thought possible.

Likewise, Sam Rockwell is a cinematic creation, the voice we always wish we had, the cool guy we wish we had in our corner, the jokester who helps us become a better version of ourselves by bringing us out of our shells. In some ways, he’s Peter Pan. Because if he existed in reality, it would only be depressing, but here there’s a special aura about him that instantly makes him our favorite character.

Meanwhile, Steve Carell much to his credit shows another side of himself and even greater range as an actor as Trent, a man who can best be described as a Grade-A jerk. Still, there’s something tragic in the characterization. Everyone else from Maya Rudolph a fellow Wizz World manager, Allison Janney the uninhibited mom-next-door living life buzzed, or even writer/director partners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, all utilize their various quirks and qualities to stand out. Even Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet while playing a pair of obnoxious friends manage to leave their marks on those roles that feel surprisingly believable.

Faxon and Rash’s previous effort The Descendants (2011) is the kind of film that got award buzz and it’s a searing drama that’s almost brutal in impact. Whereas The Way Way Back is made for summer. It’s light, funny, full of life while still managing to be poignant. Coming-of-age nostalgia pieces are a personal weakness — a guilty pleasure even — and this film hits that sweet spot. Are there flaws? Yes, but why focus on those when there’s so much that’s refreshing like a summer vacation of old that you took with your family or ventures to the water park with your best friends? Sometimes we need films like this.

4/5 Stars

Battle of the Sexes (2017)

Battle_of_the_Sexes_(film).pngEmma Stone portraying Billie Jean King was an idea that I had never entertained before but there’s a certain resilience to her coupled with that winsome go-getter attitude which shines through her brunette locks and iconic frames. Simultaneously Steve Carell feels like just about the perfect person to embody Bobby Riggs a man I know very little about thanks only to hearsay and one caricature of a performance on The Odd Couple. Admittedly that’s not a lot to go on but Carell’s comedic background does it justice.

However, despite enjoying Battle of the Sexes thanks to its leads and it’s subject matter, there’s still something inside of me that can’t help but desire a documentary instead. Because it’s one thing for a film to graft in references to the cultural moment and quite another to be a cultural phenomenon in itself.

The Battle of The Sexes between Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs was that type of event being televised and publicized like nothing before it in professional tennis. In the film, we have moments like Howard Cosell delivering coverage with Natalie Morales edited in. The lines between the real and the fictitious are so closely tied together.

It’s all so well documented. Billie Jean King is still with us and it seems more ripe for documentation than a dramatized biopic because with such a project there’s a questioning of how the story is being framed. Have certain things been repurposed or reimagined or are the majority of the facts delivered to us as they originally were?

For instance, it’s easy to read the relationship of Billie Jean King and Margaret Court through the lens of the present day and where they fall across the social spectrum now. Would that have been so cut and dry in 1973? I don’t know.

However, what is undeniable are the statements made by the likes of Rosie Grier and Ricardo Montalban commenting on the match. Those things particularly interested me because the words were pulled directly from the moment they came out of. They are as close to reality as we can get.

As a young boy, I had enough wherewithal to know about this event but the gravity of the moment never hit me until years later because I could not quite comprehend why it mattered. It was just one of the greatest tennis players in the world facing off against some old guy who used to play tennis.

Perhaps that might be selling Bobby Riggs a bit short because though he was in his 50s, he was already a member of the tennis hall of fame and won quite a few majors in his prime. But that completely misses the point of the argument.

As put so crucially by Billie Jean in the film, she was never trying to prove that women were better at tennis than men or even equals necessarily. What she was trying to show was that they deserved the serious respect and attention paid their male counterparts.

Because the inequality of pay alone seemed ludicrous given the number of ticket sales for both circuits. Billie Jean King had pioneered a new Woman’s Tennis League in protest only to be pushed out of the Lawn Tennis Association for those very reasons. The old guard represented by Jack Kramer was not yet ready to concede women’s tennis as a major draw and Billie Jean and the rest of her contemporaries were fighting up an uphill battle. They needed a major victory to turn the tides.

The stage had been set with Court, another preeminent star, getting fairly trounced by Riggs on Mother’s Day. It all but confirmed Riggs continued assertion that men were the dominant sex.

You could make the case that Billie Jean King was hardly just doing battle against Riggs because he was simply a gambler, a showman, and a clown who made the event into a media circus. It was the majority that sided with him that she was after. The men who would never concede that women deserved to be thought of in more multidimensional terms than housewives and marital companions. They could play tennis too and play it well.

So in its most gratifying moments, Battle of the Sexes suggests the import of what Billie Jean King accomplished for the sport of tennis turning the final match into a true cinematic showdown between Riggs and King. A singular event that has so much riding on it. Thus, I’m less inclined to be interested when it attempts to become didactic. The history speaks for itself.

3.5/5 Stars

Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011)

crazystupid1Here is a film from screenwriter Dan Fogelman where Ryan Gosling acts as wingman for an estranged Steve Carell; seems like a basic enough pitch for a movie, and yet thankfully it’s not quite that simple. Early on Jacob (Gosling) implores the washed-up Cal (Carell) to lose the New Balance sneakers and drop the Gap for good. What follows is a lesson in how to be a “man again.” Also known as picking up women with new clothing, a better hairstyle, and a whole different strategy. Cal’s a man trying to step out and try new things after he found that his estranged wife of 20 years Emily (Julianne Moore) slept with another man. His understandable reaction at the time he heard the news was to jump out of a moving car. It hurt him both figuratively and literally.

So Jacob is the beginning of something new for Cal as he steps out to meet women. Some of the scenes make me want to crawl up into a ball out of the sheer awkwardness and that’s often the type of humor that Steve Carell revels in. He likes to make us squirm, and it happens on numerous occasions. He says all the wrong things at all the right times. You get the idea. But behind all this, he still has feelings for Emily, and he’s wistful in the presence of his kids. Everyone wants them to get back together. However, he’s not the only one facing romantic issues as his son Robbie and wing man Jacob soon have their own problems. Emily must figure out what she wants and up and coming lawyer Hannah (Emma Stone) must figure what is the best for her.

crazystupid2As for Cal, he attends a Parent Teacher Night to end all Parent Teachers Nights and it has to be the worst circumstances you could ever imagine. It gets uncomfortable quick as he learns who his son’s teacher is. I’ll spare you the details. Then there’s a  greatly hilarious twist that hits after all the primary cast find themselves in Emily’s backyard having a few unpleasant revelations. But the film doesn’t end there since the journeys of these characters have a little farther to go yet. They have to find themselves, navigating this crazy, and yes, maybe even a little stupid thing we know as love.

I must admit I like these guys in spite of those pick up lines (Lets get out of here) and attempts at romancing, because that stuff makes funny material for a film and we get some genuine laughs out of it, but it’s when we tear that down for a moment and look underneath all of that. That’s where we find true heart.crazystupid3Most of these characters are well-meaning and likable and with those who aren’t, it’s forgivable, because they are necessary for the film’s humor initially. Namely Ryan Gosling and Liza Lapira, who always seem ready with a quip or maybe a one night stand with an obliging member of the opposite sex. The movie needs these characters I suppose since for starters it’s Jacob who helps Cal find a different side of himself. Liz who goads her friend Hannah to take a chance which she finally capitalizes on. But in truth, most all of these main players have a sense of humanity about them, mixed in with their faults and failures. Cal was once a good father and now he’s made a lot of mistakes. Jacob is a total womanizer, but when he cares about people he really does. He loses all the false pretense about him. Ironically, Cal changes Jacob as much or perhaps more so than Jacob changes him, which is important in the evolution of this film. They teach each other and in turn help each other move forward.

Even the teenagers Robbie (Jonah Bobo) and Jessica (Analeigh Tipton) may have misguided affections in a sense, but we cannot help to empathize with them in their innocence. They’re young and in love and they don’t really know what that means. Very few of us probably do. Whether it’s finding “The One” or discovering your soulmate or not, it’s easy to forgive Crazy, Stupid, Love for its conclusions which might feel a tad cliche and bright. Just this one time, because these are characters who we don’t mind giving a happy ending to.

3.5/5 Stars

The Way Way Back (2013)

adcf5-the_way_way_back_posterI’m not one to usually laugh out loud during movies but for some reason I felt this sensation during this film. There were a lot of things that seemed to suggest that I should have rated this film lower but I could not help but give it four stars. Maybe it is the nostalgia it created or the typical coming of age story made interesting by some solid characters. Maybe it just reminded me of the times I use to go to water parks. I’m not sure.

Duncan has a life that I would not envy with a Step-father who calls him a 3 out of 10. However, he finds meaning and acceptance where he never expected to. The ending might be bittersweet but it was mostly sweet. There were a lot of supporting characters in this one. A lot of them only popped up on screen for a bit but for the most part they worked well. I think Liam James and Sam Rockwell stole the show though. Their camaraderie really made this film!

4/5 Stars