The Way Back deals with alcoholism directly and somberly. It’s dreary and dour, shot in a grainy style with a washed out color palette and handheld cameras, while a mopey post-rock score accentuates the melancholy. All of that fits the material. Oh, but did I mention that this is also an inspirational sports comeback movie? Yeah, the two dramas make strange bedfellows, and The Way Back never quite figures out how to mesh the two.
Ben Affleck stars as Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball phenom. Now middle aged, he’s squandered his opportunities and works in menial construction. Clearly depressed and self-medicating with alcohol, the movie reveals his ailment effectively in an opening montage that keeps building, demonstrating just how much he drinks (beer in the shower says it all). But in the midst of this downward spiral, there’s a glimmer of hope. His alma mater contacts him. They need a new coach to reignite their once flourishing basketball program, which fizzled after Jack’s graduation over 20 years prior.
The disgraced star reluctantly accepts the job and inherits a bunch of misfit players whom he tries to mold into mature adults. Kind of hard to do when he doesn’t have his life together either, but it works…for a while. Much of the movie makes it seem as if becoming a coach fixes Jack’s problem. After a few scenes of rebuilding the team and becoming involved in the lives of the players, Jack is shown driving up to his local haunt, thinking about going in, and leaving instead. “C’mon!” I thought, “it’s not that simple.” And in fairness to the film, it eventually doesn’t make it that easy.
In between, it becomes a typical sports comeback movie. What’s disappointing here is that it takes major shortcuts to get to its goals. A couple of montages and the team starts winning. Their turnaround doesn’t feel wholly earned. It doesn’t help either that the basketball scenes are not dynamic. They’re flat, perfunctory even, seemingly cobbled together at random in post-production.
Of course, it all comes down to a major game against earlier established rivals. The game goes as you would expect, a last minute buzzer beater in slow motion and a freeze frame. Except, the movie doesn’t end there. It goes on for another half hour as Jack’s alcoholism is tackled head on. It’s different, and alleviates the simplistic road it was going down, but it still never quite works. Even though the basketball scenes are “meh” we do become engaged in the comfort food narrative of screw ups healing, coming together, and winning. But to tack on the real rock bottom spiral and extend it to a half hour after the heightened tension and release of the conventional basketball narrative is too much, logical or not.
There are good touches. The reasons for Jack’s deep depression are parceled out slowly and carefully so that the movie builds to something. And there are small details that prove the filmmakers are paying attention, like Jack’s dirty fingernails collected through his years of working construction. Affleck himself is impressive in this. His deep sadness and anger are palpable throughout, transmitted clearly even without dialogue. But his many real-life battles with addiction and alcohol, well-documented in the media, give the movie an uncomfortable degree of verisimilitude. He looks paunchy and puffy, like an alcoholic, and you’re pretty sure that’s not makeup. When his character finally asks for help, you hope the real person playing him is going to do the same.
Director Gavin O’Connor is no stranger to sports movies (he tackled hockey in Miracle and MMA in Warrior), and his attempts to do something somewhat different here are commendable. But the two narratives don’t complement each other, aren’t strong enough to stand out on their own, and end up canceling each other out. The Way Back simply never finds its way.