“The Way, Way Back” is a lighthearted coming-of-age story about an introverted fourteen-year-old boy over the course of one very eventful summer vacation. The focus is on Duncan (Liam James) and his dysfunctional family, which consists of his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), her boyfriend, the domineering Trent (Steve Carrell), and Trent’s daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin). As the summer grinds on, Duncan begins a friendship with Owen (Sam Rockwell), the friendly, outgoing manager of the Water Wizz water park. Eventually, Duncan’s friendship with Owen helps him to better understand his place in the world and gives him the confidence to start asserting himself at last.
Right off the bat, it’s obvious that “The Way, Way Back” is going to be funny. Just from the cast list, it’s possible to tell what sort of humorous sensibilities are going to be brought to bear. Any time Steve Carrell and Rob Corddry appear together in a lineup, “The Daily Show” should be the thought foremost in the viewer’s mind. Both Carrell and Corddry were correspondents for Comedy Central’s flagship news program before each graduated to successful film careers. Carrell in particular, who has top billing for “The Way, Way Back” despite what is essentially a supporting role, has enjoyed both critical acclaim and box-office success for his roles in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Get Smart;” not to mention his inspired reprise of Paul Lynde’s signature role as Uncle Arthur in “Bewitched;” to say nothing of his starring role on TV’s “The Office.” To know that the casting department was thoughtful enough to recruit Steve Carrell for the role of the heavy in “The Way, Way Back” bodes very well for the kind of thought that went into this project in general.
Evidence of thoughtful casting is also apparent in the choice of Amanda Peet and Maya Rudolph in other supporting roles. Peet is, of course, a Hollywood veteran fresh from her triumphs in “Syriana” and “2012.” Rudolph, meanwhile, has a string of heroic comedies to her credit, including “Bridesmaids” and the 2006 instant cult classic “Idiocracy.”
Sam Rockwell deserves special praise here for his role as Owen. Rockwell has spent years quietly building a CV as “that guy, you know-from that one movie,” to the point that the actor’s filmography is full of delightful shocks. He played the “that guy” character in “Galaxy Quest,” “Matchstick Men,” “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” “Lawn Dogs,” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”
In “The Way, Way Back,” he’s called on to stretch a bit by following in the footsteps of his “Green Mile” costar Tom Hanks by playing a somewhat funnier version of Hanks’ Michael Sullivan from “Road to Perdition.” As the unexpected mentor to an introverted and unhappy teen boy, Rockwell faced a serious challenge in selling his character to the viewing public. There is a limit, after all, to just how gregarious, affable, and outgoing an adult male character can get while in proximity to a pubescent boy before it just gets weird, but Rockwell manages to successfully navigate between the Scylla of creepy and the Charybdis of morose and sullen.
Also appearing in “The Way, Way Back” is writer/director Nat Faxon. Fans know Faxon’s name from his leading role in the television show “Ben and Kate,” as well as his serial appearances as Joey on “Grosse Pointe,” his role as Milk Shake on six episodes of “Reno 911!” and his numerous voice gigs with “The Cleveland Show.” In addition to his writing and directing credits on “The Way, Way Back,” he plays the relatively minor role of Roddy.
They say the compliments pass when the quality meet. If there’s any truth to that old saying, then the compliments were being tossed like beanbags on the set of “The Way, Way Back.” While it seems like a natural instinct to pull together what is essentially a bottomless pool of Hollywood talent for a movie, and even more so with comedic heavy hitters in a somewhat rarefied comedy such as this one, that strategy is often fraught with danger. For starters, there’s the issue of big stars bringing along colossal egos. This has plagued many productions in the past, and one rarely hears about clashes until years after the DVD release, but in this case, there’s every reason to believe that the cast got along swimmingly and without serious friction. Indeed, many of the stars of the film already knew each other from other movies and television shows, making them essentially already screen-tested comedy partners who bring a very real, if offbeat, chemistry to the screen.
Watch the trailer here!