Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have made a name for themselves in front of the camera by being funny Faxon on Fox’s “Ben and Kate, and Rash as the sartorially terrifying Dean Pelton on NBCs “Community. No surprise there, considering that they are both veterans of the L.A.-based improv troop, The Groundlings, where they began their writing partnership that eventually led to an Oscar(tm) for their adaptation of THE DESCENDANTS.
When I spoke to them on June 13, 2013, it was for a film, THE WAY WAY BACK, that they adapted loosely from their own lives about bittersweet childhood memories of summers at the beach. It was also their directorial debut. The conversation that begins the film, in which 14-year-old Duncan is called a 3 on a scale of ten by his mothers boyfriend (a startlingly unsympathetic Steve Carell), is one that actually happened to Rash, and using pain to get to comedy was just one of the topics we discussed, as well as how they knew they were meant to work together, working with actors who want to change the lines that theyve written, and who got to keep the envelope and card that announced their Oscar(tm) win. Faxon speaks first, and its to deliver a revelation to Rash.
THE WAY WAY BACK is a sensitive, intelligent coming-of-age tale that is never trite, maudlin, or melodramatic. Instead, it harbors a strong sense of reality when it comes to adults acting like children and vice versa. It brings you up short with its very first shot. That would be of Steve Carells eyes in a rear-view mirror, but not the sad, sweet eyes of the cuddly characters that Carrel usually plays. This is a departure and a breathtaking one, both in performance and in risk, The same can be said of the film as a whole, which takes familiar tropes and skews them into something new and bracing.
Carrel is Trent, an angry, bitter man with a façade of friendly concern as he grills 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) about how he rates himself on a scale from one to ten. The tension is palpable, with Duncan in the rear of the vintage Buick taking them all to Trents summer beach house. The way, way back of the title, in fact, a jump-seat that faces the rear window. Duncan, prodded without mercy, tentatively offers up that he is a six. Trent immediately shoots back that he is, in fact, a three, unwilling to put himself out there per Duncans mother (Toni Collette), who is Trents girlfriend who is asleep next to Trent in the front seat. Trents snotty teenage daughter is asleep in the back seat, leaving no one to witness, much less defend the introverted, overthinking kid who cant think of a riposte and, hence, sinks further into a sulk that mystifies his mother when she wakes up. The cold, naked disdain in Carrels eyes, the only part of him seen during this exchange, is a game-changer for the actor. Unafraid to be unlikable as a calculating manipulator without scruple, he is every bit the formidable thespian Collette is, playing expertly off her characters insecurities as a working-class, single-mother of a certain age, trying to fit in with Trents upscale friends (Robb Corddry, Amanda Peet).
THE WAY WAY BACK, for all its heartache, is never the downer it would be in lesser hands. Things go wrong, but there is the unmistakable implication that better days are ahead, because of, not in spite of, this summer from hell having been weathered intact.