Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Movie Review: The Way Back

The Way Back *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Gavin O'Connor.
Written by: Brad Ingelsby and Gavin O'Connor.
Starring: Ben Affleck (Jack Cunningham), Al Madrigal (Dan), Janina Gavankar (Angela), Michaela Watkins (Beth), Brandon Wilson (Brandon Durrett), Will Ropp (Kenny Dawes), Fernando Luis Vega (Sam Garcia), Charles Lott Jr. (Chubbs Hendricks), Melvin Gregg (Marcus Parrish), Ben Irving (Bobby Freeze), Jeremy Radin (Father Mark Whelan), John Aylward (Father Edward Devine), Da’Vinchi (Devon Childress), Matthew Glave (Coach Lombardo), Nico David (Ryan), Todd Stashwick (Kurt).
Ben Affleck became a movie star by playing larger than life – guys who were either the smartest guys in the room, or at least acted as if they were. He is all swagger and charisma. And yet, for me, Affleck is always best as a performer when he doesn’t fall back on any of those. His best performance ever was in David Fincher’s Gone Girl – where he is basically playing an idiot – a clueless man who has no idea what he’s gotten him into – a man who has coasted on his charm, and now is screwed because of it. His performance in The Way Back may just be his second-best performance after Gone girl – and this time, all that movie star charm and charisma is gone, as is the swagger. Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, who works as a construction worker, lives in a depressing apartment, has an ex-wife he isn’t over, and basically drinks all day. He fills his coffee cup with booze during his shift, goes to the bar every night after work. He has a routine at home – pulling a beer from the fridge, putting in the freezer, where he already has an ice cold one waiting for him – and repeating the process over and repeatedly. The next day, he’ll drink a beer in the shower to get himself going again. He’s a sad, broken man – and doesn’t seem to be interested in becoming anything else.
Then he gets a phone call – and goes into his old Catholic High School, where he was a basketball star at one point. For some reason, they want him to be their new coach. The team’s stinks – they haven’t made the playoffs since Jack led them there 25 years ago. Left unsaid, but obvious, is that the demographic makeup has changed as well – the team he inherits is mostly African Americans, with a few Latinx people – and one white guy. It becomes clear to Jack right away that his team isn’t the most talented – isn’t close – so they’re going to have to do something else to win. As he stats to mold the team, they start winning – and he at the very least comes alive again, isn’t always in a complete sulk . But redemption and recovery aren’t that easy.
Yes, The Way Back is cliched as hell. It is a sports movie in which Affleck’s ragtag team of misfits play the really good, high end school early and get killed, so you know at some point they’ll play that same team at the end of the movie again – and prove them wrong. The director is Gavin O’Connor, who did Miracle years ago, and if Jack doesn’t quite give the Herb Brooks speech near the end of The Way Back, he has certainly heard it and changed it for his purposes.
But sometimes clichés are clichés for a reason- they work – and I have to admit I am a sucker for this kind of sports movie. It helps a great deal that behind the camera, O’Connor seems to really believe in this – aside from Miracle, he also did Warrior, an underrated MMA fighting movie, which oddly (but deservedly) got Nick Nolte an Oscar nomination back in 2011. He is drawn to this type of redemptive, underdog sports movies – clichés and all. The team itself is all full of types and stock characters – the talented young cast do a good with them, but it feels like much of the work has been done for them before they even show up – because we’ve seen them before, and what they will do.
But it really helps that Affleck really seems to be giving his all here. Affleck has made no secret in recent weeks about his own struggles with addiction and self-destructive behavior – elements he certainly brings to Jack here. The movie doesn’t sugarcoat Jack – he swears constantly, prone to violent outbursts with his temper, and can be downright cruel to people who are trying to help him (we get some reasons for that, which take the edge off of it a little – or at least, explain it). But he’s still an asshole. But he’s an asshole you root for – that you feel for, and think that maybe deep down, he isn’t an asshole after all. The movie doesn’t try and put all that happy an end on all of this – just suggests that perhaps for the first time in a long time, a happy end for Jack is at the very least possible.

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