Movie Review: Affleck swims through suds on “The Way Back”

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“The Way Back” is a dull if somewhat likable nothing of a sports melodrama.

It offers a “My character got sober, just like me” story arc for Ben Affleck to talk about on the chat shows. And good for him. It’s a shame he didn’t show us more of this drunken, grieving, angry ex-jock to latch onto and give the movie an emotional payoff. That’s what I mean by “somewhat likeable nothing.”

Affleck, screenwriter Brad Ingelsby screenwriter and his “Accountant” director seem more concerned with the movie they were NOT going to make than the 108 minute mope they delivered.

It wasn’t going to be a buildup to “The Big Game” formula sports movie. So even though his character is a one-time star lured back to coach his Catholic high school alma mater, the players are no more than colorful “types” — the arrogant loafer, the dancing clown, the bruising football player throwing elbows, the meek point guard who has to learn to speak up and let his light shine.

None of them stand out because this isn’t about them.

Coach? He cusses for comic effect. Catholic school or not, nobody puts a muzzle on Jack Cunningham’s potty mouth.

Affleck & Co. struggle to avoid the standard “redemption” story arc, take great pains to hide The Secret Pain coach is dealing with. And while he can play good and soused with the best of them, Affleck’s drunk is never less than functional, a poker-faced clear-liquor-sneak who occasionally, out of nowhere, blows his cool.

Their best efforts go for naught as “The Way Back,” despite focusing wholly on Jack, his estranged wife Janina Gavankar) and concerned but eye-rolling sister (Michaela Watkins, of course), is “just” a sports movie, and as such is a a lot more “Coach Carter” than “Hoosiers.” More’s the pity.

Jack works in construction in the San Francisco Bay area by day, and closes up Harold’s Bar by night. Not that he doesn’t drink on the job. And drink driving to the job.

Then the priest who runs Bishop Hayes High makes him an offer, and a plea. They need a coach NOW. Do it part time in the evenings and weekends. Save the old alma mater, son.

The best scene in “The Way Back” might be Jack’s drink-a-case-of-beer-to-think-it-over evening, a montage of drinking and rehearsing the speech he’ll use to turn down the priest’s offer of a new reason to get up in the morning.

Jack doesn’t want to lose his nights of “D’ya ever hear the one?” bar jokes with the down-and-out regulars (“Wonder Years” dad Dan Lauria among them). Jack fits right in with the “given up” crowd. Every drinker has a story. We don’t need to hear it to know that. Glynn Turman plays “Doc,” the old friend who takes Jack home after he’s had far too many.

The basketball in this movie is nothing to write home about, and the coaching bits are the most generic cliches you can imagine. Cocky, distracted, undisciplined losers who “couldn’t hit the ocean if you were shootin’ from the beach” whipped into shape by — say it with me, basketball movie fans, a full-time “full court press” and conditioning. “Coach Carter” isn’t the only one who can demand wind sprints up and down the bleachers.

Affleck, stalking the sideline, disheveled in his best barrel-chested-drunk impression, hollers bon mots like “MOVE. Let’s go let’s GO! Watch the CLOCK! Set screens!”

I yell exactly the same thing at my TV all the way through March Madness.

Action screenwriter Ingelsby (“Run All Night,” “Out of the Furnace”) seems out of his depth here. Nobody paid any attention to the basketball or baller chatter.

“Sometimes the smart play is not the RIGHT play.”

Good to know.

Still, one of the kids is amusing and the cussing — the team has a disapproving chaplain (Jeremy Radin) and a by-the-book algebra teacher (Al Madrigal) assistant coach — can be funny in context.

But Jack’s eruptions of temper seem abrupt and inorganic. The picture has a nice “everybody is dealing with something,” downtrodden tone. But Affleck deadpans Jack to such a degree that as defensible as that might be, in a “he’s keeping it all bottled up” sense, it is just dull to watch.

I’m an Affleck fan. But man, if you don’t let us see the suffering, what’s the point?

The husband-wife arguments have no heart or pop, the lectures from the concerned sister are flat.

All of which adds up to my original thesis — “somewhat likable nothing.”

Getting sober? Good for him. But maybe he’s still too close to the subject matter to do it justice.

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MPAA Rating: R for language throughout including some sexual references

Cast: Ben Affleck, Michaela Watkins, Janina Gavankar, Al Madrigal, Glynn Turman and Brandon Wilson

Credits: Directed by Gavin O’Connor, script by Brad Ingelsby and Gavin O’Connor. A Warner Brothers release.

Running time: 1:48

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