The Way Back
Starring Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankar
Another movie about basketball, another movie about alcoholism, how thrilling. Watching The Way Back is similar to voting for a candidate you don’t have much enthusiasm for. It’s not the most exciting subject matter, certainly nothing that will change anyone’s life, but it presses all the right buttons. Affleck is fine in the role of alcoholic finding redemption in unlikely places. Director Gavin O’Conner has proven himself worthy of helming sports related flicks. His 2011 Oscar nominated Warrior is one of if not the most powerful unconventional sports related films in recent memory. The Way Back is Affleck at his least appealing; bearded, wide, and sloppy. Affleck’s performance and O’Conner direction struggle to elevate this film beyond it’s boring subject matter and tired clichés about alcohol abuse.
As a teenager, Jack Cunningham (Affleck) was one of the most promising basketball players in the Bay Area, leading his team to the championship for the first time ever. The intervening years haven’t been kind to Jack, separated from his wife (Gavankar), working an unforgiving construction job, and drinking his life away each night at a seedy local dive. He receives a call from his former priest at Bishop Hayes School asking him to be the new head coach of their lackluster team. He reluctantly accepts the job and begins whipping the team into shape. Jack’s new distraction helps him focus on something positive, and takes a step away from the alcohol until the past resurfaces. Suffering in silence, Jack risks losing everything he has left by returning to the bottle when things get rough.
If you are someone who’s never seen a sports film, or are easily inspired, The Way Back might prove quite effective.
O’Conner understands that sports films have reached a saturation point with mainstream audiences. He and editor David Rosenbloom cut out mundane, repetitive moments you expect in sports flicks. This works for the first half of the film as the story focuses on Jack’s struggle. The story leans into the players, as usual poor urban guys who need basketball to survive. Jack makes a connection with one player, more strict on another, all the stuff you’ve seen a thousand over. Then the script drops a bombshell mid-movie that wouldn’t feel earned if it didn’t justify behavior issues seen in Jack and his family. From that moment on the script limps it’s way to the predictable conclusion. If you are someone who’s never seen a sports film, or are easily inspired, The Way Back might prove quite effective.
The Way Back taps into a silent anger that Affleck portrays extremely well. The last couple of years have been rough for the millionaire, Oscar winner with his marriage, franchise and career less than ideal. It’s easy to imagine watching this film from the point of view of Jennifer Garner, and being moved by Affleck, someone who rarely talks about his feelings and personal struggles, using this role as a type of therapy or catharsis. It still doesn’t change the fact that The Way Back covers little new cinematic ground. When the film ends, there is little to discuss, because the two topics, basketball and alcoholism, have been storyboarded to death over the last decade. Aside from Affleck, the other stand out is Rob Simonsen’s (The Spectacular Now) emotionally effective original score. Ever present but never overwhelming, much of how you feel what you feel, comes from the music.
Director Gavin O’Conner and Affleck work hard to keep The Way Back from general basketball and alcoholic stereotypes, it only barely pays off.