Too good-natured to hate but too generically constructed to love, The Way, Way Back labors under the delusion that all filmmakers need to engineer a crowd-pleaser are a collection of tried-and-true conventions and a healthy dose of nostalgia. Said filmmakers are Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, co-screenwriters with director Alexander Payne of the grossly overrated The Descendants, here playing affectionate but somewhat lazy homage to the fun-and-sun teen comedies of the 1980s. There’s a nugget of truth buried in this onslaught of coming-of-age clichés, and it’s that being a kid—especially a quiet one, teetering on the edge of teendom and caught between the homes of divorced parents—is often a gauntlet of humiliation. The film begins with its most cutting scene: En route to his summer vacation house, Steve Carell metes out wounding putdowns disguised as life lessons to prospective stepson Liam James, while the boy’s mother (a wonderful Toni Collette) slumbers in the passenger seat. It’s a brutally funny exchange—Carell declares that on a one-to-10 scale, James is a three—and the first of a few glancing moments that depict early adolescence as a kind of purgatory. (Too old to enjoy the freedoms of childhood and too young to earn the freedoms of adulthood, the kid is tragically trapped in that awkward middle stage.)
It soon becomes clear, however, that The Way, Way Back is only interested in the tough stuff of youth in so far as it provides a good setup for the revenge-of-the-nerd triumphs to come. That would be okay if the movie weren’t just a transparently manufactured underdog story, one populated almost exclusively by archetypes. Settling into the beach community where he’ll spend the summer—“spring break for adults,” one of the locals calls it—James encounters a kind of checklist of colorful but familiar characters. (Bitchy teen girl? Check. Sensitive teen girl? Check. Wacky, profane little kid? Check.) His shelter from the storm arrives in the form of an anachronistic water park, built in 1983 and unchanged since, where a screwball mentor figure (Sam Rockwell) takes the chronically uncool kid under his wing. Just about everyone and everything in The Way, Way Back feels programmed, as though the film were written using Mad Libs. And just as they did in The Descendants, Faxon and Rash confuse snark for wit; their overwritten banter gets the best of even Allison Janney, reduced here to an exhausting one-liner machine.
As for James, he’s not exactly an exceptional actor, but he is refreshingly, authentically dorky—a hero never more articulate or less gawky than he should be. (Though his late transformation into a popping-and-locking sensation, coupled with his budding quasi-courtship of older dream girl AnnaSophia Robb, is a bit of a stretch.) Less convincing is a miscast Carell, who seems incapable these days of playing a villain. You can see him straining to inject some dimension into his deeply unlikable character, just as he did with Michael Scott in the second season of The Office, but there’s no room for such nuance in The Way, Way Back. The movie only really comes to life when Rockwell is onscreen, channeling Bill Murray through an almost stream-of-consciousness barrage of zingers and wringing a few drops of genuine sentiment out of his very-special-episode moments with James. It’s an effervescent performance—as breezy as a gust of ocean air, and vital to a summertime comedy that’s never as refreshing as it’s constantly straining to be.