Steve Carell has three main modes: Good guy, moron and a-hole. And whether he’s being a good guy (40 Year Old Virgin, Evan Almighty, Little Miss Sunshine), moron (Anchorman, Get Smart, Dinner for Schmucks) or a-hole (Bruce Alimighty, “The Office”) is obvious within about 30 seconds of his first words on screen.
Which, in the case of The Way, Way Back, are first words spoken. A-hole. Huge, huge a-hole.
And, in this case, he plays Trent, the step-father of 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James, whom I know best as “young Shaun” on “Psych”). He’s just married Duncan’s mom, Pam, (the perpetually wan Toni Colette) and is taking them and his bratty teen daughter out to the beach house for the summer.
Do people still do that? Why is it we’re so much richer but don’t take these multi-month-long summer trips to the beach house any more? (Did we ever do that? Or is that just a ‘50s east coast thing?)
Anyway, they’re doing it here, in this ambiguously time-oriented coming-of-age film. I mean, they do set it in modern day, but Carell drives a ’70s or ’80s era station wagon with the backward facing seat—the way, way back of the title. (Are those even legal any more?)
Anyway, with Duncan paired up with some stereotypically awful 14-year-old girls on the one hand and a geeky little nine-ish-year-old on the other, in-between his step-dad’s alternating micromanagement and disdain, the summer is shaping up to be pretty awful.
Enter Owen (Sam Rockwell), the hip, fun and reckless owner of the local water park, who takes a shine to Duncan and offers him a job. Duncan finds his feet in the water park, enough to make a move or two on the non-bitchy neighbor girl (AnnaSophia Robb, “The Carrie Diaries”), and ultimately call out his mother for being a doormat to Trent.
None of the mysticism of Beasts of the Southern Wild, nor the starkness of Mud, nor the ennui of Perks of Being a Wallflower, this is a funnier, more fun coming-of-age summer flick, that’s being compared to ’70s and ’80s fare like Meatballs. But that’s not really an apt comparison.
For one thing, those movies relied largely on crude, even mean humor, whereas “The Way, Way Back” is relatively gentle and (particularly given what’s allowed and even excepted today) modest.
But on a deeper level, the teen summer comedy of my youth was basically centered around the premise of “Yeah, this sucks, but it gets better so hang tough and have fun.” The camp counselor/cool younger adult was there to show that being an adult didn’t mean the end of all fun and to kind of show a way to adulthood. And Owen certainly fills that role here. (Sam Rockwell is as comfortable mugging and delivering glib, outrageous lines as Bill Murray, which is high praise.)
Older adults, while square, were pretty dependable,
Not so here. The theme is that the adults basically get together every night and act like dumb kids, which ain’t pretty. The supporting cast here is great, with Allison Janney as…well, the sort of awesomely awkward cougar-y kind of woman she often plays, Amanda Peet as the not awkward, but sleazier cougar-y mom, and Rob Corddry (In A World, the creepy clown doctor on “Children’s Hospital”) as her hapless husband.
But the message is pretty clear: Yeah, this sucks, and it’s probably gonna get worse unless you get not just your act together, but your parents’ as well.
That’s a way more serious message than a typical summer romp, but writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash keep the touch just right, light and funny and optimistic.
The Boy enjoyed it more than Mud, and The Flower also really enjoyed it.