I love it when a movie really surprises me. Such was the case with “The Way, Way Back”. This one-half comedy and one-half drama is a wonderful and entertaining stew that caught me off guard. Written and directed by the team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, “The Way, Way Back” is a warm and authentic coming-of-age picture. It’s a smart and funny film that at times dances close to cliché but then always turns and goes in a more smart and believable direction. It really worked for me.
Liam James plays Duncan, a sullen and awkward 14-year old who is trapped in a world of selfish, adolescent adults. He is forced to accompany his divorced mother Pam (Toni Collette), her jerk of a boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) on a vacation to Trent’s summer home in a small New England beach town. Duncan’s life is full of complications. He is disconnected from his emotionally needy mother and at constant odds with the annoying and disingenuous Trent. Then there are the assortment of oddball characters from his new summer neighborhood none of which give him a feeling of belonging.
But things change a bit when Duncan meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), a laid back water park manager. Owen takes a liking to Duncan and actually connects with him on a level that the struggling teen desperately needs. Rockwell is fabulous here and he gives arguably the funniest performance of the year. He’s obviously a naturally funny guy and you’ll swear you’re watching improvisation as he delivers one quick-witted funny line after another. Faxon and Rash along with Maya Rudolph have small roles as fellow water park employees and they round out what becomes Duncan’s sanctuary. It’s where feels free. It’s where he feels he belongs.
One of the film’s great strengths is that the story is told almost entirely from Duncan’s perspective. We see his perception of dysfunctional adults, broken marriages, and juvenile behavior from those who should be anchors of support. It really is the adults who are the irresponsible and objectionable ones. As one equally frustrated young character describes it – “It’s spring break for adults” and not in a good way. But there are always cleverly injected bits of humor that keeps the tone a tad lighter than it may sound. Much like their previous Oscar-winning work on “The Descendants”, Rash and Faxon’s script takes on serious life situations and laces them with subtle bits of comedy. It’s great writing that will have you laughing one minute and feeling deep empathy the next.
This is a character-driven movie and the performances don’t disappoint. The relatively unknown Liam James is just what the lead role needed. He’s restrained and grounded which allows for so much truth to flow from the character. I also really liked Steve Carell in a role that is drastically different from what we’re used to seeing him do. It’s interesting that the biggest comedian in the entire cast has the most serious role in the film. Allison Janney is a lot of fun as a spacey next door neighbor and Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet are delightfully insufferable as two of Trent’s close friends.
The story of an insecure socially displaced youth isn’t new, but often times it’s told using the same overused formulas and contrivances. “The Way, Way Back” doesn’t exactly carve a new path but it does stay out of the usual trappings. It’s refreshingly honest and surprisingly funny. There are also some fabulous characters brought to life through some good acting led by Rockwell. His performance was a real eye-opener for me. The soundtrack, the perfect pacing, etc. As I said, it’s a wonderful and entertaining stew and I was hooked from the first scene. What a nice surprise.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS
Hollywood is head-over-heels in love with remaking movies from the 80’s right now. So far we’ve had everything from “Footloose” to Total Recall” remade with a modernized story and gloss. Many more already have release dates or are in production. As someone who grew up in the 80’s watching the original pictures, I’m still waiting for one of these recent remakes to really blow me away and make it feel worthwhile. So along comes “Fright Night”, a 2011 version of the 1985 vampire film that I truly loved. The original was a fun and occasionally creepy horror flick that played around with elements from vampire, werewolf, and haunted house movies. It had its share of old-school special effects and classic horror cheese while also maintaining a thoroughly compelling narrative. So I had a natural curiosity and concerns about the remake. Would the Hollywood modernization process be able to capture what made the original so entertaining? Well, not exactly.
The remake’s story is built upon the clever premise of the original “Fright Night” film. Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) and his mother Jane (Toni Collette) live in a small suburb of Las Vegas. An attractive single man named Jerry Dandrige (Colin Farrell) moves into the house next door. Over time we find out that Dandrige is a vampire and Charley finds himself, his mother, and his girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots) right in his new neighbor’s crosshairs. There aren’t many more significant ways that this “Fright Night” resembles the original. One of my biggest disappointments with this film was with how little effort went into building more tension between Charley and Dandrige. The original spent a lot of time with Charley trying to convince his mother, friends, and the police that his neighbor was a killer responsible for the disappearances of many area women. This made for several creepy confrontations between the two. This film gives us only a scene or two of this, choosing instead to jump headfirst into more action-based horror that seemed purposed more for the 3D than deeper storytelling.
Charley’s predicament is so dire that he seeks the help a Las Vegas horror illusionist Peter Vincent (David Tennant). This Peter Vincent is a boozing, profane, and abusive jerk void of any of the sympathetic charm that made Roddy McDowall’s character so memorable. There was nothing at all in this character that was the least bit interesting. To be fair, it’s not that Tennant’s performance is bad. This is a writing issue that’s a direct result of a story direction choice. This is an instance of modernizing a great character from the original story with pretty poor results. And while this is a modernization problem, the movie is plagued by some fairly generic characters outside of Charley. Poots is good as Charley’s girlfriend but she isn’t given much to do. Charley’s mom is about as shallow as they come and then there are a couple of his friends that seemed to be just thrown in. Then you have one of the first film’s more memorable characters “Evil” Ed (this time played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Here he’s actually developed into a fairly sympathetic character before being thrown aside rather quickly. Farrell is fun and sometimes charismatic, but he’s only asked to talk in a creepy tone and wipe his mouth and lick his fingers after “feeding”. It’s a good performance. I just wish he was given more.
The special effects were a big part of what made the first film such fun. It had some over-the-top gore but it fit in perfectly with the story. Here the effects are fine although in several places the CGI is clearly evident. And with the exception of a pretty spectacular car chase sequence, there aren’t any scenes that at the end of the movie really stuck with me. And this leads into the fact that this “Fright Night” just isn’t that scary. There are a couple of loud music jump scenes but in terms of actual creepiness, there just isn’t much of it.
I know it seems like I made a lot of comparisons between the original movie and this new version of “Fright Night” in my review. I try not to do that. Maybe I’m just too big of a fan of the original to help myself. But I also think this film has some flaws that keep it from being as good as it could be. This film’s decision to spend far more time on horror-based action actually strips the picture of the spookiness that made the first picture so much fun. It’s not boring and there are a few good intentional laughs scattered throughout the film. There’s also a fantastic cameo from Chris Sarandon (Dandrige from the first film) that really hit the spot. But in the end, this was another underachieving remake of a really good 80’s movie. In other words, I’m still waiting for an 80’s remake to blow me away.