In Brief: It’s a feel-good basketball movie. What’s not to love? Plenty. But there’s also plenty to like.
Ben Affleck plays Jack Cunningham. He’s an alcoholic. His drinking problem is very serious. You learn why mid-movie. Cunningham is offered the job of coaching his high school alma mater’s basketball team. The team sucks. But so does Jack.
One day he stops drinking and becomes a real coach. Then the team stops sucking and they become a real basketball team. The trip from drunk to winning coach and sucking team to winning team is fun to watch. It’s smile inducing movie making that will tempt you to high-five the person sitting in the seat next to you.
Of course, Cunningham has to fall of the wagon. That’s the way the basketball is dribbled in this kind of a sports movie. The why of the slip and the resolution are as predictable as the wagon fall.
For Affleck the getting sober part and the falling off the wagon has to be a bit autobiographical. I know it is for me. I’m an addict and an alcoholic, and have been clean and sober for 34 years. I drank and exhibited the kind of destructive behavior experienced by Cunningham so it makes movies like this hard to watch.
I also — at 70 — still play full court, fast break basketball twice a week. It became my addiction after drugs and alcohol were dropped. A basketball court is my happy place. Basketball movies aren’t.
So at times I wanted to yell at the screen. Fortunately, director Gavin O’Connor’s movie and the screenplay he and Brad Ingelsby (American Woman) did manages to have enough positives that it didn’t require any yelling.
They even manage to place a surprise or two into the plot. And it’s about basketball so I’m a lot less apt to yell about my favorite sport.
The movies is — however — a bit of a letdown. Part of the letdown comes from the performances. Affleck sleepwalks through the role and acts like he’s bored with the whole thing. It’s almost like he could see the headlines and critics — like me — pointing out the autobiographical aspects of the movie. Affleck does very little but swear at the refs a lot, call timeout a lot and pop the top of beer after beer after beer.
The other actors are only required to look patient and also look like they’re actually playing basketball.
My other complaint is how the alcohol problem is more or less whitewashed. It’s done in cookie cutter style and the solution while a bit of a surprise, is way too simplistic. That made the movie flat and flavorless.
O’Connor — who directed Affleck in The Accountant and did the critically acclaimed Warrior in 2011 — is an excellent storyteller. He does the best he can with this one. The predictability of it all undoes what you love about the movie and is where things slip.
Flaws aside, it’s not a bad movie and because it’s about basketball and has some feel good stuff in it, the movie manages to rack up some positives. In the end The Way Back manages to find its way back. Or to put it another way, the movie ends up missing a free throw or two, but won’t give you a hangover.
Directors: Gavin O’Connor
Stars: Ben Affleck, Janina Gavankar, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins, Hayes MacArthur, Da’Vinchi, Glynn Turman, T.K. Carter
Rated R for language and mature themes. This one isn’t a slam dunk but it’s not totally awful. Give it a free throw or three… or make it a 3 1/2 out of 5 on the Friday Flicks with Gary 0 to 5 scale.
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Gary Wolcott has been reviewing movies on radio, television and newspaper since 1990. He believes — and this is an estimate only — that he’s seen something close to 10,000 movies in his lifetime. Gary is a lifelong fan of films and catches a couple of hundred movies a year. He believes movies ought to be seen on the big screen and not on the small screen in your living room or family room. While he loves movies, he also says reviewing film can be a real sacrifice and that he sees many movies so you don’t have to.
He is one of KXL 101.1 FM’s film critics and joined the news staff in 2014. Gary is also the film critic for Tri-Cities, Washington’s Tri-City Herald.