PARK CITY - Not all screenwriters are meant to be directors, and there are many directors who should be kept arm's length away from a keypad. After winning a best adapted screenplay Oscar along with Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon ("Ben and Kate") and Jim Rash ("Community ") move to the director's chair with the funny, but rocky "The Way Way Back."
The dramedy begins in the back of a station wagon as Trent (Steve Carell) tries to bond with his girlfriend's 14-year-old son Duncan (Liam James). Along with his own daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) and Pam (Toni Collette as Duncan's mom), the quartet are headed to Trent's coastal Massachusetts beach house for the summer. Duncan does not look happy, and he looks more miserable when Trent asks him to grade himself on a scale of 1-10. Duncan doesn't want to answer, so Trent informs him he's a 3 and this summer is his chance to break out of his loner mode. Yes, this is one of the worst things you could ever tell a child and, yes, this is not your typical Carell character.
As the pseudo family arrives at the beach house, Faxon and Rash begin the film's awkward back and forth between comedy and drama as we meet kooky next door neighbor Betty (Allison Janney, stealing scenes left and right) and Trent's good drinking friends Kip and Joan (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet). The movie is Duncan's story, however, and these famous faces are used to illustrate how out of place our hero is and how condescendingly Trent treats him as mom smiles and hopes the two can get along. The dramatic plot points are very familiar, but when Faxon and Rash return to their comedic roots things get much livelier.
Luckily, Duncan finds an escape from the beach house when he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), the charismatic and wisecracking manager of the beach's local water slide park. Owen sees a kid looking for an escape and offers Duncan a part time job. He decides to keep the gig a secret from the adults back on the beach, which never seems to make sense (even for a silently rebellious teenager). Thankfully, the scenes with Owen at the water park are where the movie is the most entertaining. Rockwell does a great job making Owen the father figure Duncan sorely needs while mastering Faxon and Rash's funny bits enough to make you wish the whole movie took place at the park. It also helps that Faxon and Rash use their own expert comedy skills as two of the park's employees, Roddy and Lewis. It's so much more interesting at the park that every time the picture returns to the beach you're just hoping Janney is in the scene.
Eventually, "Way Way Back" arrives at an expected dramatic climax between Trent, Pam and Duncan (only the jokes are the surprise here) and, as expected, our hero has found his voice and is no longer a "3." Rash and Faxon don't bring anything new to the coming of age drama genre, but demonstrate they can create a world of interesting and very funny characters.
James is fine as Duncan, but disappears in too many of the film's initial scenes with his more well-known co-stars. Carell has the unenviable job of making Trent unlikeable and a well-rounded character at the same time and more than satisfies in that respect (Trent has good intentions, but just doesn't know how to view his girlfriend's son as anything but a potential threat). Collette tries to make Pam's character arc as realistic as possible, and AnnaSophia Robb has the thankless role of playing Betty's daughter Susanna whose only purpose is to show Duncan a girl might actually be into him.
Carell, Collette and Rockwell's involvement should guarantee distribution. Whether it will sell at a price to ensure a profit domestically remains to be seen.