FILM REVIEW – THE WAY BACK. Starring Ben Affleck, Janina Gavankar, Al Madrigal, Brandon Wilson, Michaela Watkins. Written by Brad Ingelsby and Gavin O’Connor. Directed by Gavin O’Connor. Rated R for language throughout including some sexual references. 108 minutes.
In many ways, Ben Affleck – the Burt Reynolds of Generation X – wears his stardom lightly and always seems to be having a better time than you are, creating an easy rapport with the audience that overcomes his rather limited range and an unfortunate penchant for making terrible movies. Like Burt before him, he’s locked into a perpetual comeback cycle and whenever he finds himself solidly back on the upswing has an uncanny knack for mucking things up in spectacular fashion. Affleck’s ubiquitous tabloid travails have made it impossible for him to really disappear into a character, with his best roles these days being thinly veiled considerations of his Affleck-ness. 2014’s “Gone Girl” may have been the ultimate meditation on Being Ben, but THE WAY BACK comes a close second.
An inspirational sports drama directed by Gavin O’Connor – whose “Miracle” and “Warrior” were both about as good as this genre gets – the film stars Affleck as a California construction worker who begins every morning with shower-beers and at night the regulars all help carry him home from his neighborhood dive bar. A star basketball player back in high school, he walked away from a full-boat scholarship to spite his dad and has seemingly devoted the rest of his life to screwing up in one way or another, until his old alma mater comes calling, looking for a new coach.
The screenplay (which the director wrote with Brad Inglesby) is pretty boilerplate stuff. Think “Hoosiers” with Dennis Hopper as the head coach, or “The Bad News Bears” if Buttermaker’s alcoholism was supposed to be sad. But the thing about formulas is that they work, and it’s impossible not to get swept up in the familiar beats of the misfit coach turning around a losing team just in time for the playoffs. O’Connor knows how to low-key sidle up to triumphant moments on the court, making them feel earned instead of obligated. The grainy cinematography and rough-and-tumble production design scuff up the script’s Disney slickness, as does Affleck’s habit of bellowing f-words in front of priests at this Catholic school for boys.
He’s terrific in this, by the way. Burly and bearded, exuding the same shambolic gravity he brought to his shockingly effective turn in last year’s nifty “Triple Frontier,” Affleck is finally aging into the soulful screen presence he couldn’t pull off in his self-directed performances. (There’s a reason the best movie he’s helmed stars his little brother.) Playing a jock gone to seed is the perfect use of a persona that in his early stardom too often came off as callow or fratty. Consequences look good on him.
The film plays footsie with Affleck’s real life, excessively well-documented substance abuse issues, to a point where I felt like his confessional promo campaign bordered on distasteful. But boy can this guy crush a drunk scene. Exhibiting the same elan with which in “Triple Frontier” he slipped his breakfast beer into a cozy before driving his daughter to school, Affleck has a showstopper of a sequence here when he houses a 24-pack, rattling around his empty apartment at night, rehearsing his half of imaginary conversations while making sure to always pop the next can into the freezer so it’ll be ice cold when he drains this one.
Unfortunately, in its second hour the film veers from the tried-and-true. Right when we’re really rolling with the team and getting to know the players, “The Way Back” drops a surprise tragic backstory for Ben and pulls our attention away from the game. It’s a development that’s honestly too big for this modest movie to bear, throwing everything that follows out of whack and cheapening the character’s self-destructive tendencies by explaining them away. As it becomes more overtly melodramatic, the film becomes less emotionally effective, straining for massive moments as if Affleck had gotten jealous of kid brother Casey’s “Manchester By The Sea.”
The kids and the game that we’d become so invested in are all but lost here, and it feels like crucial scenes have gone missing during the runup to the playoffs. (Curiously, initial press materials listed the film’s running time as 29 minutes longer than it is now. A last-minute edit, perhaps?) I’m not often one to complain about movies being too short but this one feels awfully tight around the middle.
I wanted more time in the paint. As with his superlative hockey scenes in “Miracle,” O’Connor is excellent at conveying the strategy of sport without just letting an announcer to explain to the audience what’s going on. There’s a great bit in which Affleck sketching out a play is intercut with the team pulling it off, and of course it’s pure gold every time our coach cusses out the referees. “The Way Back” barely puts any emphasis at all on the big game, by then mired in off-court drama that’s decidedly less interesting. But I guess there’s something poetic and in character about such a solid Ben Affleck comeback vehicle finding a way to screw everything up.•••
Over the past twenty years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.