Review by Bob Ignizio
A indie coming of age story that has an obvious affection for eighties teen comedies, THE WAY WAY BACK centers on Duncan (Liam James), a nondescript 14 year old whose recently divorced mom Pam (Toni Collette) is inexplicably dating major douchebag Trent (Steve Carell). We see just how much of a douchebag Trent is in the opening scene when he asks Duncan to rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10. After much prodding, Duncan grudgingly offers up a 6. Trent tells him he's at best a 3, making the chances that Trent is going to be the male role model he clearly needs pretty slim.
Trent has taken Pam and Duncan, along with his own daughter from a previous marriage Steph (Zoe Levin), to a New York seaside vacation town in the hopes that everyone will bond together as a family, albeit under his terms. Not surprisingly Duncan isn't exactly on board with this plan, although there is one bright spot: he has the lovely and slightly older Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) for a neighbor, and she doesn't treat him like a complete loser.
Still, Duncan is in need of a serious self esteem booster, and he finds it when he strikes up a friendship with Owen (Sam Rockwell), a likable loser who works at the local water park and helps Duncan get a job there. Owen is basically Bill Murray in MEATBALLS or Chevy Chase in CADDYSHACK, an anti-authoritarian guy who likes a good time but isn't always as responsible as he should be who ends up becoming an unlikely role model for a young protagonist in need of one.
The portions of the film involving Duncan and Owen goofing off at the water park work the best, providing plenty of laughs with just a touch of pathos. Owen sees a younger version of himself in Duncan and tries to help him become a better man, which of course in makes Duncan a better man as well in the process. The young budding romance between Duncan and Susanna works, too, coming across as sweet and authentic.
What doesn't work is the material between Duncan, Trent, and Pam. Trent doesn't have even a thin outer layer of charm; he's just a dick, and he doesn't do anything to hide it. That makes Pam a clueless doormat, and yet the movie seems to want to present her as smarter and stronger than that, and it just doesn't jibe. And while the movie doesn't spend that much time with Trent's developmentally arrested vacation cabin neighbors, every minute spent with them feels like one minute too many. The film might well have been better off if it hadn't tired so hard to be meaningful and just gone for the laughs, but those gripes aside, THE WAY WAY BACK still manages to entertain more often than not. 2 1/2 out of 4 stars.