PLOT A former basketball phenom, now an alcoholic, returns to his high school as a coach.
CAST Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankar
RATED R (language and adult themes)
BOTTOM LINE Strong work from Affleck in an otherwise morose and meandering drama.
In "The Way Back," Ben Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball star, now an embittered alcoholic, who finds a chance at redemption when he returns to his alma mater to coach a team of undisciplined goof-offs. If you think you've seen this movie before, you surely have — maybe as "Fat City" or "Tin Cup" or "Hoosiers," to name just a few iterations. If you're hoping for a new twist, forget it. Aside from Affleck's quietly convincing performance, "The Way Back" offers nothing to make it stand out in a crowded field of underdog sports movies.
What you need to know about Jack can be summed up in two visuals: His fridge full of beer, and his old jersey, still hanging in the trophy room of Bishop Hayes High School. A call from Father Devine (John Aylward) convinces Jack to take on coaching duties in addition to his construction job; he'll be teamed with assistant coach Dan (Al Madrigal), whose real job is algebra teacher. The two men are a contrast — the quiet drinker and the amiable mathematician — but not a very interesting one.
Then come the players, who fall into the usual slots: Cocky Marcus (Melvin Gregg), skirt-chasing Kenny (Will Ropp) and the talented but insecure Brandon (Brandon Wilson), among others. By putting these kids in a Catholic school, the movie avoids inner-city cliches like the gangbanger best-buddy, but to be honest the story could have benefited from some of those dependable old tropes. These kids have minor problems like tardiness and lack of focus — not exactly the stuff of gripping drama.
As the film progresses and the Hayes Tigers begin to win games, it becomes clear that "The Way Back" isn't interested in the team, the game or even Jack's estranged wife, Angela (Janina Gavankar), with whom he shares painful memories. Director Gavin O'Connor ("Warrior," the Affleck vehicle "The Accountant") and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby ("Run All Night") focus on Jack to the exclusion of nearly all else. Affleck, who himself recently entered rehab for alcoholism, wears the role well, with exhausted eyes and a jaw that clamps down on his emotions. Still, two hours is a lot of time to spend with such a withdrawn figure.
There are few satisfying moments for any of this movie's secondary characters. Where's the kid who sticks up to his abusive parent or the buttoned-down priest who finally cuts loose up in the bleachers? What we get is all Jack, all the time. Doesn't this movie know there's no "I" in "team?"
In the movies, a struggle with alcohol is a dependable source of drama and emotional conflict. It also tends to attract Oscars. Here are four examples:
THE LOST WEEKEND (1945) Ray Milland won an Oscar for playing an alcoholic writer in this adaptation of Charles R. Jackson's semi-autobiographical novel. The film also won best picture, adapted screenplay and best director for Billy Wilder.
LEAVING LAS VEGAS (1995) Another adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel about an alcoholic writer — and this time Nicolas Cage won the Oscar for his role. The book's author, John O'Brien, killed himself shortly after learning his book would become a film.
ARTHUR (1981) Steve Gordon's screwball comedy about a boozy playboy (Dudley Moore) drew criticism for its lighthearted treatment of addiction, but the zingy screenplay earned an Oscar nomination.
FLIGHT (2012) Denzel Washington plays a commercial airline pilot hailed as a hero for crash-landing a plane — until authorities suspect he was drunk. Robert Zemeckis' drama earned high praise, and Washington earned an Oscar nomination.
— RAFER GUZMAN