Movie Reviews - 2013 postsWednesday July 31, 2013
Movie Review: 20 Feet from Stardom (2013)
Over the title credits of “20 Feet from Stardom,” a documentary by Morgan Neville about background singers, we hear Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” Why? Because the colored girls go: Da doo, da doo, da doo, doo da doo doo, da doo, da doo …
How do we describe background singers? What’s their connection to the lead singer? What’s the metaphor?
The most obvious metaphor, or at least the most proper, is the call-and-response of the church, particularly the black church. It’s the minister and his choir. He delivers the sermon and they say “Amen” and “Hallelujah.” He says “Hunhhh” and they say “Hunhhh.” He says “Ho” and they say “Ho.” He says “Hunhhh hunhhh, ho ho,” and they sing “Baby, it’s alright.” This is brought home in the doc by the number of background singers who actually came out of the church; the number who tell Neville, “My father was a minister.”
The other metaphor, equally obvious but less proper, is the pimp and his whores. They dress the way he says. They move the way he says. They follow his lead. “If you wanna be a Raelette,” it’s been said, “you gotta let Ray.”
Sex and talent
I grew up in the heyday of background singers in the early 1970s. Variety shows were big then. The call and response was big. Ray Charles had the Raelettes and Ike Turner the Ikettes and Gladys Knight had her Pips. (Neville, practicing his own brand of gender discrimination, doesn’t mention them. It’s all about the women.)
When did I first see them? On “Ed Sullivan”? “Flip Wilson”? They always looked like they were having more fun than the lead singer. He was often sweating, pained, bearing a burden, while in the background they smiled, slid, shimmied, and made gorgeous noise. They were sexy. Is this where ménage a trois fantasies begin? Ménage a quatre? I remember recently seeing the “Superstar” number from “Jesus Christ Superstar” again, and, yeah, Carl Douglas as Judas is great, but my main thought went something like, “Holy hell, who are those background singers?”
You can’t ignore the sex. “I didn’t set out to be the sex symbol,” says Claudia Lennear, who backed Joe Cocker and the Rolling Stones, and who may have been the inspiration for the Stones’ “Brown Sugar.” “But you posed for Playboy,” Neville responds. Lennear looks thoughtful for a moment, a response on her lips. then just collapses in abashed laughter.
You can’t ignore the talent, either. It’s stupefying. “20 Feet” isn’t really about the history of background singers, it’s about a chosen few who either tried for stardom and fell back or never really tried. “It’s a bit of a walk,” Bruce Springsteen tells Neville. “That walk to the front is … complicated.”
Why doesn’t it work for these women? Different reasons for different singers. Darlene Love got screwed over by Phil Spector, who kept her in the background for decades and put other girls’ names (“The Crystals”) on her recordings. Maybe Merry Clayton, who originally recorded “Gimme Shelter” with the Stones, didn’t make it because Aretha was already there, and maybe Claudia didn’t make it because Donna Summer was already there, and maybe Judith Hill isn’t making it because Beyoncé is already there. And because Hill dresses like she’s in a 1980s MTV video.
But Lisa Fischer? Who backed Luthor Vandross and Teddy Pendergrass and Chaka Khan in the 1980s, and who has toured with the Stones since 1989? What the hell? You’re often dumbfounded by the talent on display here, but for me there was one moment when the singing was so out there, so surreal, if felt like a wave crashing over my head. That was Fischer singing her Grammy-winning song, “How Can I Ease the Pain?” in Japan in 1992. (Video below; stick around to 3:30.) They were obviously trying to market her as another Whitney. Maybe that was the problem. Because Lisa Fischer not making it? That’s a condemnation of the entire culture. It’s like James Joyce getting rejected by publishers (which happened) and Fred Astaire being dismissed as a bald guy who can dance a little (which happened). But somehow Joyce and Astaire broke through. They got breaks. They had perseverance. Something. Whatever it was.
Love and Justice
That “whatever it was” discussion in “20 Feet” is pretty fascinating. Tata Vega heard she was too old, too fat, not right. Fischer talks about her inability to self-promote. “Who can I call to introduce me to such and such?” she says, then wrinkles her nose. “Something about that just feels strange to me.” People who succeed don’t think twice about making that call. We live in a sales culture, not a talent culture. It ain’t a meritocracy, kids.
But we do get some justice. By the mid-1980s, Darlene Love, who backed everyone from Buck Owens to James Brown, was cleaning homes rather than working for Phil Spector. But she returned to music, and about the time Spector was going to prison for murder she was being inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and singing on stage with Springsteen.
What don’t we get? A look at the history before television. We don’t get the ‘40s and ‘30s. We don’t get the Crickets or the Pips or any of the men. We don’t get enough of the ones who became stars. Sheryl Crow? Why her? And does anyone mention Margie Hendricks, the most famous Raelette, who sang foreground in “(Night Time Is) The Right Time,” and who died an early, drug-related death?
Even so, go. “20 Feet from Stardom” is a joy. Because the colored girls go: Doo da doo, da doo, da doo, doo da doo doo, da doo, da doo …
Movie Review: The Wolverine (2013)
The unsurprising thing about “The Wolverine” is that for much of the movie our title character (Hugh Jackman) loses his recuperative powers. It’s unsurprising because that’s the way of superhero sequels. See: “Superman II,” “Spider-Man 2,” “Ghost Rider 2,” and “Iron Man 3.”
The surprising thing about “The Wolverine” is that it’s not a stupid movie, a la “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and the two “Fantastic Four” movies, which are all Fox properties, and Fox is infamous for its loutish, lowest-common-denominator tendencies. See: “I don’t have to explain myself—least of all to you” and any minute of “Fox & Friends.”
Indeed, given the limits of the genre, and the baggage of the character, “The Wolverine” isn’t bad. It has quiet moments of power. It doesn’t rely quite so heavily on the roller-coaster ride. There’s a scene late in the movie when Logan/Wolverine is trying to save a girl (of course), and runs into a band of ninjas. By this point he has his recuperative powers back and initially delivers this hero-ready line: “Is that all the men you brought?” But more ninjas appear on the rooftops, members of the Black Clan, silent and slippery, and they shoot arrows trailing wire at Wolverine, including one dipped in poison, and bring him down. I suppose it’s a “How much can our hero withstand?” moment, a pieta almost, and the poison-tipped arrow recalls an earlier scene in the Yukon with a grizzly bear; but there’s a poignancy to it, as Logan goes down on his knees, struggling against all that’s attached to him and holding him back. It’s a ready metaphor. It’s how life feels sometimes. Really? Another arrow? Aren’t these others enough?
This is the movie that finally takes a step beyond Brett Ratner’s abysmal “X-Men: The Last Stand,” released seven years ago, which cut such a swath through the lucrative franchise—killing off Prof. X, Jean Gray and Cyclops, and taking away Magneto’s powers—that we’ve only had prequels since: “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” in 2009, “X-Men: First Class” in 2011, and the oddly titled, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” for next year. No small task getting past all that Ratner screwed up.
Not that “The Wolverine” isn’t without problems.
It opens, as “Iron Man 3” did, with our superhero a king of infinite space were it not that he has bad dreams.
It’s August 1945 and Logan is a POW in a Japanese concentration camp in Nagasaki (one wonders how they captured him) when the U.S. drops the big one. Once the planes are sighted, the Japanese soldiers, renowned for their kindness, set about freeing their prisoners so they have a chance to survive. Seriously, they do that. I’m sure Fox was looking out for its lucrative Japanese box office, but for a corrective read “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. Or any history book. Or see this.
Another kind Japanese officer, Yashida (Ken Yamamura), releases Logan from his iron bunker, then joins other officers about to commit ritual hari-kari. But he’s distracted by the A-bomb blast (nice use of CGI), then saved by Logan, who is burned to a crisp and recovers before Yashida’s amazed eyes. At this point, Logan wakes with a start. He’s in bed with Jean Gray (Famke Jannsen), who died in Ratner’s movie. She’s alluring, he’s confused. Only when he gives in to the allure does he realize that this, too, is a nightmare, and he awakes with a start. Now he’s bearded and scraggly-haired and living in a cave in the Yukon wilderness with a grizzly bear as his only friend, and guilty feelings trailing after him like arrows shot in his back. He killed Jean, the woman he loved, to save the world—or something—so that’s why he’s become a hermit in the Yukon. The movie doesn’t really question this but I do. Dude’s nearly two centuries old and that’s his solution? Hiding? That’s as wise as he’s gotten?
Before we get too comfortable camping with Wolverine, he comes out of the wilderness to deal with a doofus hunter in town, where he is confronted by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a girl with a Valentine-shaped face and a lethal samurai sword, who handles the tavern face-off, then tells Logan to get in her car. He does. She tells him she’s a representative of Yashida, the Japanese officer he saved, who wants to repay him before he dies. To do this, Logan must go to Japan. He does. Some Wolverine. He’s docile here. He’s domesticated. He even gets a shave and a haircut when told.
So how does Yashida (now Hal Yamanouchi), who’s now a powerful CEO of Yashida, the Toshiba of this world, repay Logan, who saved his life so long ago? By offering to end Logan’s life. “You’re a soldier,” he tells him. “You seek what all soldiers do—an honorable death; an end to your pain.”
Does he ever consider this offer? Is it what he truly wants? We never find out. Because unfortunately he’s landed in the middle of a Japanese melodrama. Yashida favors his granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto, making her screen debut), over his CEO-wannabe son, Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), who has promised Mariko to Minister of Justice Noburo (Brian Tee) despite her love for the handsome ninja and archer, Harada (Will Yun Lee).
That night, Mariko tries to kill herself but Logan stops her. Then Yashida dies, which Yukio, who can foresee death, didn’t see coming. Then Logan stays for the funeral (why?), which is interrupted by Yakuza, who try to kidnap or kill Mariko, but Logan again saves her and the two go on the run—she reluctantly, seeming to not want his help, he with bullet wounds in his stomach that don’t heal. His recuperative powers! Gone! Like Yashida said! How?
Long story short: Yashida has willed his entire company to Mariko, not Shingen, which is why Shingen employs the Yakuza to get her. Later in the movie, there’s a moment when Wolverine can kill Shingen but walks away. “You tried to kill your daughter,” he says. “Live with that.” Good stuff. Then of course Shingen attacks again and blah blah blah.
Meanwhile, Harada, the romantic archer, is working with Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a mutant who absorbs and spreads toxins, and who was last seen as a doctor working for Yashida. Who’s pulling their strings? Yashida, of course. The death was a fake, which is why Yukio didn’t foresee it, and in the last act he dons the adamantium Silver Samurai suit to take on Wolverine, chop off his claws, and absorb his recuperative powers. “You thought a life without end has no meaning,” he says to Wolverine. “But it’s the only life that has meaning.”
In the end, Wolverine loses his adamantium claws (tough to watch), regrows his skeletal ones (which never seemed as cool), and wins the day (big surprise). The experience has somehow helped him purge his guilt over killing Jean. He’s also started a relationship with Mariko, now a CEO, but leaves Japan anyway, with Yukio, in a kind of “Casablanca” moment without the resonance. “I’m a soldier,” he says, “and I’ve been hiding too long.” He’s Rick, Yukio is Louis, and the private plane they walk into is the Casablanca fog. Not nearly as cool.
As for all the problems I’ve addressed? There are more.
If Yashida’s plan was to absorb Logan’s life-force, his longevity, why not do it that first night? Viper implants the bug that messes with his recuperative powers, so why not, at that moment, trap Logan and attempt to do what you did in the final act? Why wait?
And does Logan really live forever? He’s obviously aged. He used to be a baby, then a boy, and now he looks like Hugh Jackman at 44. He probably just ages more slowly than us, but he will die someday. So his life isn’t a life without end. He should know that.
At the same time, I do like how the movie gives lie to Wolverine’s central conceit and complaint, which he says early to Yashida: “Trust me, Bub. You don’t want what I’ve got.” Really? Instant recuperation from any injury? Long life? No, I think I’d like to have that. The problem has never been Logan’s power but what he does with it. He’s relies upon it like a crutch. It’s astonishing the number of ninjas who lay hands on him. They’ve trained for, what, a decade or two, he for centuries, yet they’re actually better fighters than he is. He just recuperates faster. His super power has actually made him weaker.
And can he learn a second language? Alive nearly two centuries and he can’t speak a lick of Japanese.
And what’s Canadian about him? He seems wholly, gruffly American. Because he is. He’s Ben Grimm recast.
And why just dream of Jean? What happened to the girl from the ‘70s? Already forgotten? And was there no girl from the ‘50s? The ‘20s? The Gay ‘90s? The 1860s? No, he keeps dreaming of Jean, who, like Jamie King in the godawful “Spirit” movie, and Jessica Lange in “All That Jazz,” represents death. Apparently death is always a beautiful woman. At least for men with limited imaginations.
But somehow the movie still works. Not sure who to credit. Screenwriter Scott Frank has a tendency to work on movies that are better and smarter than they should be: “Get Shorty,” “Out of Sight,” “Minority Report” and “Marley & Me,” among others. Screenwriter Mark Bomback is associated with more loutish films (“Live Free or Die Hard,” the “Total Recall” reboot, the “Race to Witch Mountain” reboot), while director James Mangold has made some not-bad serious films: “Walk the Line,” “3:10 to Yuma,” “Girl, Interrupted.” Jackman is superb as always.
Fanboys will probably be talking up the mid-credit sequence, two years after the events in this movie, when both Magneto (Ian McKellen, with powers) and Professor X (Patrick Stewart, alive again), appear to Logan asking for his help against a new, powerful enemy. Wooooo! Yeah, but not for me. That was cool in “Iron Man” in 2008 but now it’s just a ploy to build toward another “Avengers”-like killing at the box office. It’s sloppy sevenths.
No, the better part of “The Wolverine” is the part the fanboys won’t like—that it’s the least superhero-y of the recent superhero movies. It also feels like some vaguely intelligent people were behind it, and they didn’t mind crediting their audience with some vague intelligence, either. In today’s culture, with today’s summer movies, that’s a welcome change, bub.
Movie Review: Only God Forgives (2013)
Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” is the type of movie critics like to call “Lynchian” but I get the feeling that if David Lynch ever saw it he’d go, “What the fuck was that about?” It’s the type of movie only God could forgive. Well, God and Todd Gilchrist, who gave it a positive review.
It’s all atmosphere. Ponderous atmosphere. Plus eviscerations.
The plot is simple. A scummy American drug dealer in Bangkok, Billy (Tom Burke), with a predilection for young girls, rapes and kills a 16-year-old and remains behind as evidence. A local cop, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), then makes the father of the girl kill Billy. Then Chang chops off one of the father’s hands for making prostitutes out of his daughters in the first place. When Billy’s mother, the family matriarch Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas, looking like Madonna by way of New Jersey), roars into town for revenge, she has the father killed and pays two goons to get Chang. Bad move. Chang is not only a cop but a master of Muay Thai and swordfighting; he’s Thai cousin to Kyuzo, the master swordsman of “Seven Samurai,” and he survives the assault, then goes after the bad guys. He kills the killers, kills Crystal, and chops off the hands of Julian (Ryan Gosling), Crystal’s other son, the ostensible star of the movie, who has almost nothing to do here. He sings a maudlin karaoke song to his fellow cops in a very David-Lynch-like bar and the movie ends.
Right. What the fuck was that about?
I like that there are no real good guys and bad guys here; Chang is the closest we have to a good guy. He’s our real protagonist. I like that Julian, our ostensible protagonist, who is even more incomprehensible than his character in Refn’s “Drive,” offers to fight Chang and loses badly. It basically goes like this:
Cop: You know who he is?
[Julian walks up to Chang.]
[Chang turns around]
Julian: Wanna fight?
[Chang sizes up Julian. After 10-15 seconds, nods.]
Then we get the fight. And Julian doesn’t lay a hand on him. He winds up looking worse than Rocky Balboa after the 15th round.
Much of the movie feels like a dream, a—yes—Lynchian dream, complete with red walls and raised red lanterns, but if it is a dreamscape it’s not much different than the supposed reality of the land. Everyone is stoic. Everyone takes 10 to 15 seconds to respond to a question. Do we get 300 words in this movie? 250? Was Refn going for the record?
It’s as if he took everything I liked about “Drive,” one of my favorite movies of 2011, and threw it away, and took everything I disliked about “Drive” and made this movie out of it. It’s not just style over substance; it’s ponderous style over almost no substance at all.
Movie Review: Muscle Shoals (2013)
Having grown up hearing how white performers made a mint off of, or stole outright, black music, it’s fascinating to see, in Greg Camalier’s excellent documentary “Muscle Shoals,” just who was backing some of the great black performers of the 1960s. Wilson Pickett on “Mustang Sally”? White dudes. Percy Sledge on “When a Man Loves a Woman”? White dudes. Aretha on “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”? The same white dudes, a group of guys from or near Muscle Shoals, Ala., called the Swampers. In this doc, they’re variously called “funky,” “groovy,” and, courtesy of Aretha, “greasy” with a z, but the best description comes from a man who never played with them. Bono, U2’s frontman, calls them “a bunch of white guys who looked like they worked at the supermarket around the corner.”
So how did they get together? And why did some of the greatest singers in the world begin to make a pilgrimage to Muscle Shoals, Ala., in order to make music?
It starts with tragedy.
Greasy with a Z
Rick Hall, the founder of FAME Studios, a rinky-dink place in Muscle Shoals, was raised in Franklin County, Ala., after his mother left both he and his father to become a prostitute. Wait, it gets better. He married young but his wife died in a car accident when he was behind the wheel. Wait, still better. Once he made some money, he bought his father a tractor and the tractor eventually killed him.
Like Dilsey, Rick Hall endured. His father instilled in him a drive to make it, to be somebody, as Hall says in the doc. So after his wife’s death, along with several others, he started FAME Studios—Florence Alabama Music Enterprises—and in a few years produced Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On,” which became a Top 40 hit in 1962 and was covered by the Rolling Stones two years later. He found Percy Sledge working as a hospital orderly and produced his song “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which has become one of the great R&B classics. He came to the attention of Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, who sent him Wilson Pickett. Among others, “Mustang Sally” resulted.
Aretha showed up. She’d been misused by her previous record label, Columbia, so Wexler sent her to Muscle Shoals where they recorded “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You),” which went to No. 1 on the R&B chart. But a contretemps occurred between her husband and a backing musician, Hall made it worse, and Aretha cut out for New York to record, with the Swampers, the rest of the album. Yes, including “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”
That was just the beginning. Etta James showed up. The Staples Singers. Duane Allman, Jimmy Cliff, the Rolling Stones. Hell, even the Osmonds.
Some of the best documentaries connect things we didn’t know were connected, and that’s what “Muscle Shoals” does. I didn’t know so much music, so much great and long-lasting music, came out of one small Southern town. Attempts to explain this fact sometimes verge on the mystical. “At different points in time, on this planet, there are certain places where there is a field of energy,” Jimmy Cliff says. I like Bono’s explanation better. Of various musical traditions, he says, “It always seems to come out of the river.” Of the Muscle Shoals sound, he adds, “We felt the blood in that. We felt the pulse of it. And we wanted some.”
Without a pulse
The tragedy of Rick Hall, who’s known so much tragedy, is that eventually everyone leaves Rick Hall. His first backing band split to create their own recording studio in Nashville so he promptly created another, made up of Spooner Oldham, Jimmy Johnson, David Hood and Roger Hawkins, who became the Swampers, made music history, and eventually broke from Hall, too, at the end of the 1960s.
What is it about the end of the ‘60s that led to so many breakups? Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, my parents, your parents.
Like the breakup of the Beatles, the breakup of Hall and the Swampers created disparate sounds, a few good songs, but less magic. Hall produced the Osmonds and Paul Anka, and he wrote, and convinced Clarence Carter to perform, “Patches,” a treacly story-song, which, in an era of treacly story-songs, went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1973. The Swampers recorded the Rolling Stones (“Sticky Fingers”), backed Paul Simon (“Kodachrome”), refused to cut down Lynryd Skynyrd’s rambling “Free Bird” and thus lost the band.
Hall won awards during this period—nominated for a Grammy in 1970, Billboard’s Producer of the Year in 1971—but the doc doesn’t acknowledge that this later music, while popular, was tinny, maudlin and forgettable. It didn’t have a pulse. The subsequent decades are glossed over because not much worthwhile happened. One wonders why. Do even the most talented, the most driven, get only a moment? The river is still there, after all. It keeps rolling. Does Hall not hear it anymore? Or is it something else? All of us only have so much to say and only a moment in which we have the opportunity to say it. Maybe this was their moment.
If so: damn.
Movie Review: The Way, Way Back (2013)
“The Way, Way Back,” a sweet, coming-of-age movie, is just a little too.
Duncan, (Liam James), a 14-year-old forced to spend the summer at his mom’s boyfriend’s beach house, is just a little too silent and slouched. Trent (Steve Carell), the boyfriend, is too much of a macho asshole, while the girl next door, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), is way too pretty and caring. She’s there to notice what’s happening in Duncan’s life and bring him out of his shell. Apparently she has no life of her own. She’s just there to serve the geeky boy’s story. As all pretty girls do.
As a result, the movie is just a little too simple. What exactly does Duncan learn here? Others learn. They learn the world is almost exactly as Duncan sees it.
1 to 10
The movie opens with one of the oddest conversations I’ve heard between an adult and a teenager in the movies.
Trent is driving up to his summer place with his new girlfriend, Pam (Toni Collette), asleep in the passenger seat; his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin), asleep in the backseat; and Pam’s silent, awkward son Duncan, awake in the way, way back of Trent’s classic, wood-paneled station wagon. Duncan wants to be alone with his thoughts but Trent more or less bullies him into conversation. He asks if he’s asleep. He wonders how Duncan sees himself. Then he tries to ascribe a number to it. On a scale of 1 to 10, what are you?
Trent: You don’t have any opinion?
Trent: I’m just asking.
Trent: Pick a number.
Duncan: A six.
Trent: A what?
Duncan: A six.
Trent: I think you’re a three …
He tells him he’s too passive and misses opportunities. “Plenty of opportunities at my beach house this summer,” he says. “One day we could become a family,” he says. “So what do you say? Let’s try to get that score up, huh?”
You think: Either this guy is clumsily attempting to get Duncan out of his shell or he’s a massive asshole, belittling the belittled as a way to mark territory that no one is remotely threatening. You hope for the former. You hope for nuance.
Nope. The dude’s a dick. And he becomes more of a dick the more we see him. He continues to bully and belittle Duncan—making him wear a life vest on a boat where everyone else is free of them. He’s petty about board games and vindictive when threatened. He winds up cheating on Pam with Joan (Amanda Peet), and when this becomes known in a too-public argument, he tells Duncan, who repeats that he just wants to spend the summer with his father, that he isn’t doing that because his father doesn’t want him. Nobody wants him. It’s reminiscent of that great scene in Ron Howard’s “Parenthood” when Gary (a young Joaquin Phoenix) calls his father to live with him only to get rebuffed—except it’s not nearly as poignant.
Trent’s daughter, Steph, is an awful person, too, and she doesn’t want to hang with Duncan, who’s quiet and geeky and wears jeans to the beach. At times he seems like a Michael Shannon in training. It takes half the summer before someone suggests he puts on a swimsuit. Duncan’s mom? She’s too busy with Trent and the other adults. Susanna calls their beachside town “spring break for adults” and it is. The grown-ups drink too much, go out on boats; drink too much, sit around a campfire; drink too much, stumble around in the dark. They don’t act like parents. They act like people grasping at some sad, last bit of happiness before they begin the downhill slide. It’s autumn break.
The ultimate big brother
Duncan, 14, with his whole life ahead of him, tools around town on the only transportation available: a pink bike with tassels on the handlebars. He meets Owen (Sam Rockwell) at a pizza joint playing Pac-Man, and again at a water park, Water Wizz, where Owen lives, and where he deals with his own stunted life by being larger than life and joshing with everyone. “You’re going to have to leave,” he tells Duncan, a sad sack sitting by himself. “You’re having way too much fun and people are complaining.” After he gets Duncan a job at Water Wizz, he asks him to break up a couple of kids breakdancing poolside. “Worse-case scenario,” Owen tells him, “they beat you up and you’re horribly disfigured.”
If Pac-Man, break-dancing and station wagons—and with them, the very concept of “the way, way back,” which would be lost on today’s SUV-riding kids—seem more 1980s than 2010s, just wait. We also hear “New Sensation” by INXS. Owen talks through the lyrics to Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero,” then recounts the entire plot of “Footloose” to an uncomprehending teen crowd. One gets the feeling that writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who also play Wizz employees Roddy and Lewis) originally wrote this as a period piece but were forced to update. Maybe they had it in a drawer since the ‘90s. Maybe it finally got greenlit after the success of “The Descendants,” which they co-wrote with Alexander Payne. But it feels set in the past. No one’s texting anyone. Duncan’s mom doesn’t give her smartphone to Duncan so he’ll keep in touch. She can’t, because it’s really the 1980s.
I like how the actors are cast against type. Carell has never played annoying in the macho American tradition, and he’s good at it, but Rockwell steals the movie. The actor who usually plays schitzy and scuzzy is here the ultimate mentor/big brother, setting the shy kid on his own path, building him up and bringing him out. Of course Duncan idolizes him. So did I, and I’m 50.
In a smaller role, Allison Janney shines as Susanna’s mom, Betty, who always has hair askew, a drink in one hand, and an awkward, often embarrassing revelation to proclaim to the world. She’s brassy. But as Susanna’s mom? At the end, from Duncan’s perspective, we see them hug, and Janney, with her big features, towers over Robb, with her delicate features. She’s envelopes her. She makes Robb seem like a delicate French hors d’oeuvre she’s about to devour.
Liam James is good in the lead, too, although he ultimately seems more silent than sullen. He seems too mature. Near the end, his mother finally visits Water Wizz and sees his photo decorating the “Employee of the Month” board. He’s grinning awkwardly, eagerly, as if Owen had just made him laugh. There’s something gloriously geeky about it. It’s probably the first time she’s seen him smile in months. That photo broke my heart in a way the rest of the movie didn’t.
“The Way, Way Back” obviously recalls “Adventureland,” the 2009 coming-of-age comedy starring Jesse Eisenberg: amusement park, summer, pretty girl. It also less-obviously recalls “Mud,” a coming-of-age story set in Arkansas along the White River: kid with family troubles, gloms onto charismatic rebel, helps him with his business.
In “Mud,” though, Ellis discovers the world isn’t full of absolutes; it’s full of shades of gray. Duncan doesn’t learn that here. He doesn’t begin to see the world from an adult perspective; the adult, his mom, begins to see it from his. In the end, she climbs into the way, way back with him. They’re a team again because Trent is such an asshole. But that’s not much of an answer. Earlier, Owen tells Duncan not to let Trent define him, but that’s what the movie does. It constructs its ending, its resolution, in opposition to the awfulness of Trent.
Did Duncan need to learn nothing? A lot of trouble could’ve been avoided, for example, if he’d simply told his mom where he was going every day. “Hey Mom. I got a job at this place called Water Wizz. Pretty fun. See ya!”
I know: Being 14 is rough. I think of Michael Apted’s “Up” series. The kids at 7 are outgoing and lively, then at 14, boom, they all retreat inward, as if shocked and stupefied by adolescence. I was the same. In 1978, when I was 15, our family visited Rehoboth Beach, Del., our summer retreat. On the drive out, Shaun Cassidy’s “Da Doo Ron Ron” kept playing on the radio, and I thought how cool it would be to meet a girl named Jill, like in the song. When it didn’t happen, when I didn’t meet any girls (because I was too skinny and silent and brooding like Duncan), I invented her. I pretended to friends back home, or a friend back home, that I’d had a girlfriend at the beach. Yeah, I was that guy. I look back now and shake my head. Will Duncan, in middle age, look back at this summer and shake his head at anything he did? In the end, it turned out pretty well for him. He made friends, came out of his shell, kissed a pretty girl. Plus his mom realized what a jerk that Trent was. Why, it was almost like a movie.