Rockwell steals front and center in 'The Way Way Back'
Rockwell steals front and center in ‘The Way Way Back’

I would like to make a case for Sam Rockwell as one of, if not the, most underappreciated actors of our time.

With his rapid-fire delivery and expert timing he could coast as a comedic actor, but he is just as capable of powerhouse dramatic performances. In most cases he brings a little of both; he’s like the human embodiment of those comedy and drama acting masks.

In supporting roles he steals virtually every movie he’s in and in the odd chance he’s given the lead (which is tragically rare and only in independent movies like “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” “Choke” and “Moon”) he electrifies the entire film.

Because I am such a fan of Rockwell’s general awesomeness, I have to give a lot of credit to writers/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash for letting Rockwell snatch their movie “The Way Way Back” away from a very talented cast then running off and hiding with it.

Faxon and Rash are interesting cats in their own right. Coming off a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar win for “The Descendants” they might be better known for their TV work, Faxon for staring in the now-canceled “Ben and Kate” and Rash as the theatrical dean on “Community.”

With “The Way Way Back” they have created a coming-of-age movie that’s about as coming-of-age-y as you can get.

In spite of what I’ve led you to believe, the movie is not all about Rockwell, but instead focuses on withdrawn and awkward 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) who is dragged to a beach-resort community for the summer by his well-meaning mother, Pam (Toni Colette), and her obnoxious boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell, playing against type).

Duncan is such an afterthought the title of the movie refers to his position in Trent’s vintage station wagon (not sitting in the back, or in the way back, but in the way, way back).

Even though some seeds of anarchy are sown by Trent’s drunken, beach-house neighbor Betty (the always-formidable Allison Janney), Duncan is still profoundly miserable and disappears into town for hours on end.

It is there where he crosses paths with Rockwell’s character, Owen, the manager of an unassuming water park. Realizing that Duncan needs a friend, Owen hires him to do odd jobs around the park.

It is among the water slides where the movie hits a higher gear as Rockwell constantly cracks jokes and engages in all manner of hilarity to the delight of nearly everyone in the park (including Faxon and Rash who have minor roles as park employees), with the notable exception of his put-upon assistant, Caitlin (Maya Rudolph).

While this is portrayed as the greatest summer job in the history of the universe, in a lesser actor’s hands Owen could have easily been just a one-note, merry jester; but Rockwell has the chops to make the emotional moments with Duncan ring true while beneath all the jokes showing us a character struggling with his own arrested development.

The rest of the cast does an admirable job of slogging through the melodrama on the homefront, but just like Duncan, I found myself just wishing I was back at the water park.

I’m still not entirely sure if “The Way Way Back” is better or worse off for the shifting tones, as part of me thinks Faxon and Rash just wanted to prove that they could do a screwball, “Meatballs”-like comedy just as easily as the emotional drama that snagged them the Oscar.

What I do know is this: I had a thoroughly enjoyable time watching “The Way Way Back” and Sam Rockwell needs to be in more movies (although I kinda knew that beforehand).

“The Way Way Back” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language, some sexual content, and brief drug material.

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