RIORI Vol 3, Installment 65: James Mangold’s “Identity” (2003)

 

 



The Suspects…

John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, John C McGinley, John Hawkes, Clea DuVall and Rebecca DeMornay, with Jake Busey, William Lee Scott, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Bret Loehr and Alfred Molina.


The Story

Ten strangers find themselves stranded at a remote desert motel during a raging storm a million miles from nowhere. They soon find themselves the target of a deranged murderer, and any one of them could be the killer. As their numbers thin out, the travelers turn on each other rather than trying to figure out who the real killer is.


The Rant…

Everybody loves a mystery. You ever take a moment as to ask why?

Is it your curiosity being piqued? The thrill of discovery? Nabbing the bad guy? Finally locating the lost TV remote (it was in the freezer, and that pint of Ben & Jerry’s you grabbed in a drunken haze is under the couch. Was)?

One of the best examples of illustrating the appeal of a mystery I caught—surprisingly—on an ep of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the cold open we learn that Captain Picard is mucking about on the holodeck, playing detective. He’s invited his friend Guinan to join him, since she expressed interest in what the appeal is humans see in solving a mystery.

They find themselves at gunpoint by some digitally-rendered tough promising hurt, demanding info on whatever. Suddenly a shot smashes through the window and the thug goes down. Picard is excited, much to Guinan’s confusion. She asks what’s next, and he asks who was this guy? What did he want? Why was his trying to kill us?

Picard lays it out, “We have to look for clues!”

Guinan asks, “And that’s fun?”

Picard grins and says, “And that’s fun.”

There is your geek-out moment for the day.

*takes small bow*

Forgetting the fact that Sir Patrick Stewart teamed up with Whoopi Goldberg to solve a murder in holographic, VR 1940’s San Francisco (there’s your second), that installment of ST:TNG was right. What’s the fun of a mystery, besides (hopefully) solving it? The thrill of the hunt. Pitting your wits against the quarry. See what you’re made of. Some guy has been killed. Whodunit? You up to the challenge, Sherlock?

By extension mystery movies are fun for the same reason, duh. It’s not like in reality, where detectives have a crime to crack, sure. A murder, theft, missing person, where their tub of Cherry Garcia got to, etc. With the real cops there’s a lot of pounding the pavement, jockeying the phone and lots and lots of paperwork. Briscoe and Logan made it look intense and fun, and you didn’t see them much at their desks did you? There were perps out there to shake down, dammit!

As much fun as the original Law & Order could be, the hour-long procedural (50 minutes, actually), barely half of your average episode were given over to the cops sniffing out the guilty party. With a mystery movie you not only get a lot more time to expand on character development, twists and turns, intrigue and do so blissfully devoid of commercial interruption. Speaking of which, how come there’ve never been an Ben & Jerry’s TV ads?

I’ll stop that now.

Time does make the difference. As analog to real life, certain infamous serial killer cases are still open, even years after the killings have ended. The Zodiac Killer, the Alphabet Murders, Jack the Ripper. I’m no forensic scientist, but what’s the sense in this? Okay, maybe the survivor’s have a bone to pick, awaiting closure. These almost-cold case files have been active for decades (and in a certain light, Jack’s conviction has been centuries in the making) to no avail. Why? Because the more time given over to cracking a case the greater the likelihood of it happening. In simpler term, tackle a mystery over a continuum permits more “study.”

Character study, psychological study, even a study of setting. Stretch it out, stir the pot and the mystery gets drawn out. In a good way. In a good mystery movie there must be room to breathe, space to let us buffs round up the usual suspects, take in as many clues as possible and time to cogitate what the blue f*ck’s going on. You gotta mull it all over in more that the almost half hour Dennis Farina and Michael Imperioli had.

Another key aspect of a good mystery flick—as demonstrated in the holodeck microcosm—is you should keep the setting tight. Small. Confined. Almost a character unto itself. It cuts away the distractions, the fat. The clunky mysteries I got subjected to often had this sprawling tableau. Fletch (which was really more a comedy with the mystery chewy center) wandered everywhere, from LA to Provo, UT. The Forgotten (which rambled on and on, despite the cool premise). Final Analysis (quit bumbling all over Boston Town). You get the idea.

Here’s when the isolation worked, almost to transcendent levels. Rear Window (Jimmy Stewart’s dumpy apartment and a trusty pair of binocs). Murder On The Orient Express (it’s a train, dummy). Memento (Guy Pearce’s bloody mind). It keeps us cinema detective focused; on the case, as it were.

The final key to a good mystery movie is an eclectic rogue’s gallery. In virtually every notable mystery flick we got us a freakin’ tossed salad as supporting cast. Again, Rear Window was a good example. The goofy Murder By Death and Clue were populated by real rogue’s galleries, despite both being parodies. The Usual Suspects was a given. The mishmash of disparate personalities keeps you guessing as to—you guessed it—whodunit.

That being said, Identity follows this formula to a T. We got a timeline to try and follow. We got an isolated scene of the crime. We got our weirdos. So the movie must’ve played out in classic fashion, and you kept guessing and scratching your head for the duration, right?

Well…let’s step onto the holodeck, shall we…?


Not much happens at Larry Washington’s (Hawkes) lonesome motor lodge. He’s planted in the middle of the Nevada desert, just south of nowhere. Like the Paul Simon song says: it’s a long, lonely life.

That is, until the storm hits.

Down the road apiece, nervous George (McGinley) and his family’s ride has a flat. He and his wife go out into the driving rain to inspect the damage, which is when George’s wife gets hit by Ed’s (Cusack) limo hauling fussy, near washed up actress Caroline Suzanne (DeMornay). She demands Ed leave it as a hit and run. Nothing doing. George’s wife is in mortal peril and needs help. A hospital beckons.

Too bad all the roads are washed out. Looks life Larry’s motel beckons instead.

Upon arrival Ed and crew meet with surly Detective Rhodes (Liotta) tasked to escorting violent criminal Robert Maine (Busey), all grinning and nuts. Faulty newlyweds Ginny (DuVall) and Lou (Scott), whose bickering belies a deeper problem. Paris (Peet) the hooker, who’s either on the run or planning to “get lucky” in Sin City. Now thanks to impartial Mother Nature all of them are stuck with Larry’s hospitality for the night.

But the night is not still in the desert, despite the rain.

Paraphrasing Keanu, strange things are afoot at Larry’s motor lodge.

Caroline’s desperate to calling her agent in LA. She scrambles out into the brush trying to find better reception for her cell phone. Then she ends up in one of the motel’s dryers, not choosing to do laundry, let alone find the rest of her body.

Great. We got a killer on our hands. Where’s Maine at?

He escaped the cuff attached to the plumbing only to find himself literally chewing on death.

What about Rhodes, his escort? He’s got a habit of disappearing.

And what the hell’s in Larry’s freezer?

It’s murder by numbers. One, two, three.

All apologies to Sting…


Identity is a modern day, B-movie, Hitchcock pastiche. This is not a bad thing. In fact, such a mish-mash makes the flick kinda fun. Kinda.

Like I said above, Identity has all the hallmarks of your classic—albeit simple, if not formulaic—mystery movie. Admittedly, the film’s story was lifted from the Agatha Christie classic And Then There Were None. But again this book was caged more times than a shoplifter rampant in a Wal-Mart populated by blind sales reps so let’s give that a pass, shall we? Identity is a classic but hackneyed story played out already a dozen times over. We’ll give that a pass, too. Hell, if it’s a formula that works, roll with it. Like I’ve been fond of saying regarding a film’s originality, it’s like the blues: it’s not the notes, it’s how they’re played.

Despite Mangold being a solid director, he’s probably also a tad tone deaf. At least here.

Now. Either the guy was a total rip-off artist and hack with Identity, or f*cking brilliant in the movie’s delivery. At the outset the movie’s intro smacks of something, but it just might be every mystery movie ever made needed to introduce our future victims, yet just twistedly cheezy enough to keep you watching. Mangold sets the stakes fast, if a bit comically. Of course nothing is as it seems to be, within the story and without. The tension and intrigue begins to pile on, but in such a ramshackle fashion you’re not as to take it seriously or find it all laughable. Maybe Identity‘s supposed to be seriously laughable, I dunno. Middle America’s vote is still out on this one.

Keeping in mind The Standard (which we haven’t kept in mind for a coon’s age) dictates an assignment due to mixed reviews, Identity is the first flick here to deliver mixed signals. Messages, even. Here’s a way to twist the whole Ten Little Indians dynamic: troll the audience. I ain’t talking twists and turns here. I’m talkin’ playing on the audiences’ expectation. Tomfoolery over intrigue. Tugging your coat rather than planting seeds. In simpler terms: nyah nyah nyah.

It’s kinda cool in a way. Really.

I’ve seen other Mangold’s movies (including The Wolverine, which was covered here. He did a good job, and his latest Wolverine installment Logan is getting rave reviews) and he does above average yeoman’s work. He’s a journeyman director, like Richard Donner or Alan Smithee.

*pause for effect*

And the man’s pedigree is a varied one. We can go from Walk The Line to Knight And Day in a single breath, and go along with it with a tenuous grin. I mean, “Oh sh*t, where are we going?” There’s a difference (but very slight) between winking at the audience and tying the string around their loose tooth. Oddly, both often have the same effect.

So which side of the coin clattered down with Identity? We land on the edge, my popcorn-addled flock. Mangold is no doubt trolling us here, but it’s done in spite of ourselves. We know where we’re going here. We know that any one of these dweebs could be the killer, especially since motive is absent (that a spoiler?). We expect twists and turns to obfuscate the killer’s identity.We have established tension, but it’s a tad weak, and you could see it all coming. Yet we didn’t expect to find Caroline’s REDACTED. Most murder mysteries ain’t so graphic nor wink-wink, nudge-nudge in the same breath. Here’s a cute sample of Mangold f*cking with us, but not necessarily messing with our mind. Not outright. It’s the comic booky fun at work with Identity.

Identity is kind of chimera. An idle fancy. It’s as if Mangold asked himself, “How far can I stretch the audience’s suspension of belief?” It’s a puzzle, not a mystery. Identity is a Rubik’s Cube, not a chess board. It’s obviously inspired by Christie, but also Rashomon; the story is slick and slippery. You can’t get a tack. Mangold relies on trickery rather than intrigue. There’s a kind of goofiness to the movie. That B-movie flavor I alluded to above. Despite the dire stakes, some madman (or men) skulking around offing Larry’s guests, there’s a cardboard cheesiness lurking just below the surface. It has the feeling of formula, yet dodges it. Admittedly, I have to dig that.

And, doy, I gotta address our dramatis personae. We’ve got the best ensemble cast here that I’ve seen in a long time. At first, these actors have no business whatsoever sharing screen time together. Later we understand that anyone could be the killer; they’re all stereotypes after all. But again with the blues. For example, I often forget how protean Cusack can be, despite his comic bent. Liotta is so good at being mad. Hey, Peet can act (color me surprised)! DeMornay’s still alive (not for long here, ha ha) and is still hot! And McGinley set aside his desperate sarcastic schtick for being desperate and period. Okay, Busey is still weird, but still our cast is so colorful it gives us a little sugar to go down with the urine. Yeah, there’s a game afoot, but someone lost the instructions.

That lack of solid misdirection in Identity, paired with Mangold’s cagey direction makes this goofy murder mystery all the more sweet, if only barely palatable. The film insults our intelligence, yet you feel you gotta go along with it. What I’ve been pummeling for the past lifetime is thus: a good movie mystery can adhere to all the rules I laid out before, misstep and still be entertaining with the right director lording over a mediocre story. Better than the sum of its parts? I don’t know. Half the movie’s parts are stuck in transit from eBay with Identity.

The best thing I feel about Mangold’s direction and therefore Identity‘s atmosphere is that it never takes itself too seriously. It straddles the ridiculous. It has a steady, creepy funny vibe. A combo seldom found in anything Miss Marple ever unraveled. Even the big reveal is laughable, as if, “Oh James, you got us. Pop the balloons.” He got us all right. The finale is such a joke you’ll slap your head in disgust for falling into his trap. For following along. Going with it. D’oh!

Identity is a clear sample of having the joke on you. I might’ve overplayed my hand here. I had to be careful and select my words very carefully to not give away the progression of the mystery. And it wasn’t truly a mystery, either. It was a shuck and jive, and the attentive audience kept looking for a partner at the junior high dance. You’re better off glued to the wall, watching the few, brave characters on the floor.

In the end, with Identity connect the dots, erase, suspend what you expect then accept it, slap your head and laugh and then get pissed for being hoodwinked. It’s a good waste of time.

Just leave Larry’s freezer alone.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Never have I laughed so hard at myself for taking a murder mystery seriously. The mystery is really, “Why the f*ck did you watch this? For DeMornay’s boobies?” Uh, yeah.


Stray Observations…

  • “Did you feel that?” Kinda cheesy, but it worked.
  • Even for 2003, that’s an awful big cell phone there.
  • “I wish I had beige.”
  • This mess is like a murderous Gilligan’s Island on crack.
  • “I am very f*cking calm!”
  • Mangold indeed shows his strengths here, well put to his Wolverine movies.
  • “I don’t know if I’m comfortable with guard duty, per se.”
  • Kinda glad George got his. He got quite annoying quite fast.
  • “We’re all in Nevada.”
  • Does Cusack ever age?
  • “Yeah.”
  • So after all that’s said and done Malcolm is truly in the middle?

Next Installment…

Who would’ve know Mike Judge’s Idiocracy would prove so prescient so fast? Ask Putin (burn!).


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 26: Rob Letterman’s “Gulliver’s Travels” (2010)


21170487_PA_Los_viajes_Gulliver_1


 The Players…

Jack Black, Jason Segel, Emily Blunt and Chris O’Dowd, with Amanda Peet and Billy Connelly.


The Story…

When slacker mail room clerk Lemuel Gulliver want to impress his crush, the newspaper’s travel writer, he tries his hand as a travel writer himself. She gives him a “fluff assignment” about goings on in the Bermuda Triangle, and not wanting to lose his chance Gulliver jumps at it. If only to impress a girl.

After getting sucked into the weirdness that is the Triangle, Gulliver washes ashore on the isle of Lilliput, populated by tiny people who are none too happy now having a giant on their hands. Not to mention Gulliver unhappy in wondering how he’s going to get home again.

There’s a girl waiting, y’know.


The Rant…

Hey. Here were go with another flaky cinematic adaptation of a famous, if not revered author. If only for one book. Well, it worked for Dalton Trumbo.

Aaaand here come the Obscurity Police, ready to club me with the latest Grey installment.

*wards them off with a battered copy of Gravity’s Rainbow; screaming*

That’s better. Pynchon. Works every time. Now then:

I’d be remiss in my duties to not mention that I failed to mention that the last installment covering The Raven was serendipitous. At the time of that post, it was Edgar Allan Poe’s 207th birthday, spot on. I didn’t know at the time. It was a crummy gift (even though the movie was okay. Just okay), but how appropriate and lucky I took apart a film loosely based on Poe’s works on his b’day.

Well  thought so.

Speaking of loose adaptations, betcha most of you read Jonathan Swift’s satirical opus Gulliver’s Travels back in high school English. If you were me, instead of studying the book…let’s not go there. Even if you never read Swift’s novel, you probably know about the part where our hapless hero washes ashore on the island of Lilliput populated by tiny, tiny people. The image of the now giant Gulliver strapped down, dozens of micro people flittering around the giant has become part of pop culture. Not to mention an eternal metaphor for…something.

Sure, the book was full of cool adventures, but most readers had to be reminded that Travels was intended as a satire. Social commentary couched in silliness. When I was conscious in class, I learned that the conflict between the Lillputians and their enemies the equally tiny Blefuscudians, which Gulliver became entangled, was the result of a disagreement of the proper way to crack an egg. Absurd.

*crickets*

It’s true; read it. The Lilliput/Belfescu conflict was supposed to represent the acrimony between the UK and France over…nothing really. At the end of the day, nothing vital. Just culture clash, really. So went Gulliver’s other travels, Swift flipping the bird to stuffy British society between tending to his clergy with his day job as a minister.

*more crickets*

It’s true; read it. That metaphor is classic (not the clergy thing), which is why the tale has inspired countless movie versions, both live-action and animated. I remember as a kid a live-action version of the story starring the unimpeachable Peter O’Toole as our titular adventurer. It only tackled the Lilliput arc (as most have done), but it was a great version. I only found out later—when I woke up—after reading the book how close to the book the moviemakers got. And it didn’t stop with the O’Toole version and now the Jack Black movie. Gulliver’s Travels has been adapted to TV, film and even radio thirteen times. Told you it was a potent tale, literary accuracy or no.

Where am I going with all this you may ask, as well as where are my slippers? Despite the fact Gulliver is a delicious tale to reinvent, the satirical element—the book’s original selling point—often gets lost in the shuffle. I’ve found that only for satire to work there needs to be just enough humor to balance any rancor, not matter how tame. I’m not talking a Carlin screed here (even though he was able to temper his ire with quieter, sillier bits), but I only think Gulliver on film works best when there is low-level silliness, not fart jokes and our hero pissing on things.

Wait, what?

Oh. Well, I did say when I first actually read the book…nothing I should mention here…


Terminally stuck in the mail room at the New York Tribune, lowly slacker Lemuel Gulliver (Black) gets a fire under his ass from his new boss. Gulliver’s rudely informed that he’s a going-nowhere loudmouth, and’ll probably be stuck in the trenches forever unless he mans up and gets a pair. Y’know, make a first move.

That almost being a dare, Gulliver hits up on his crush Darcy (Peet), the resident travel writer for a date. Instead he stumbles into getting assigned a fluff assignment to Bermuda to investigate a story about its infamous Triangle. Hey, whatever works.

So with passport in hand, a mediocre at best command of being a reporter, Gulliver sets sail into the heart of the matter. The heart turns out to be a typhoon that scoops him ashore on the tiny island of Lilliput with its equally tiny denizens. By accident, Gulliver is now the mountain of a man he should’ve aspired to be in the first place. And it fits him as well as being strapped to the earth against his will.

Might as well be back in the mail room and that “Guitar Hero” session.


Okay, so the whole satire angle went totally out the window with this version of Gulliver. But this was supposed to be a family film, so we gotta dumb it down a bit. Maybe a lot. But as stupid as the source material could be stripped, this Gulliver could’ve been a lot worse. You’re in for a typical Jack Black ad-libbed quip fest. What else did you expect? Bertolt Brecht’s Baal on ice?

*even more crickets*

Wake up. It’s almost lunchtime.

Even though Black is known, if not infamous for playing randy, snarky assh*les, his schtick actually marries well to a “family” flick like this one. The man’s bread-and-butter is playing overgrown kids after all. It’s just odd here in Gulliver to not hear any blue language (kind of a relief actually). We got Black making an attempt to play it straight—be the everyman—and try and be relatable rather than repellant. I ain’t saying Black as an actor is repellent. He’s terribly amusing, if not hilarious in the proper film (e.g.: High FidelitySchool Of RockTropic Thunder, etc), but I think we’re all kinda used to the sh*tstorm he brings to his films. That’s a complement, BTW.

Toned down Black (just enough) is pretty palatable. Gulliver features Jack Black Lite. Sure, his character is an obnoxious clown, but he also manages an air of innocent sweetness. Really. Sweet Jeebus he comes across as likable here. I know. I’m just as shocked as you. Hell, it’s a family film, and the schlumpy dude is a big kid. A very big kid in Lilliput anyway. He’s got a sweetness here in a chummy sense, not sugary. If it weren’t for Black—I can’t believe I’m saying this—there’d be very little for this movie to hang on to. Sure, the supporting cast (especially Segel) is entertaining and goofy, but without Black’s left-handed charm to grab onto, everything would descend into slapstick. For almost 90 minutes.

Speaking of timing, I must talk about the technical sh*t at work here. Don’t worry, I’ll be back to smashing to other stuff in due course. I just can’t resist a good segue.

Gulliver is a pretty straightforward movie. Not a lot twists and turns, at least none that would blow the kiddies’ minds. But against that the pacing is too swift. I know this is supposed to be a family-friendly flick, quick enough to battle against bathroom trips and the youngin’s attention spans can’t be taxed too much, but give the editor an Ativan, will ya? Rapid fire cuts and leaps can really take its toll on anyone no longer Santa Claus eligible. What I’m sayin’ is give the ‘rents a break already. Gulliver clocks in at an efficient 85 minutes; I’d actually appreciate a few more to calm sh*t down. But that’s just me (a parent, thank you).

A few other things: much to my surprise, this fluffy little film was pretty faithful to the source material. Some of the notable things anyway. The loopy life of Lemuel and his hard-on for Darcy is out of Hollywood, but several of the (mostly) humorous bits were left intact. For instance? The literal piss takes. At first I was cheesed at sticking in a schtick like that, but it was in canon. Really. So was the boat-tugging in the battle at sea scene, and of course the iconic Gulliver-strapped-down bit. Overall I was surprised how many details director Letterman included in his movie spun from Swift’s tale, cleverly applying the size-difference in nifty ways. The coffee montage was great I have to admit, as was the beach house thing. Usually when a book churns through the spin cycle—especially a family movie—a lot of crap gets excised in favor of poop jokes and/or extraneous, Cheez-Whiz dramatics. Don’t misunderstand, Gulliver has its fair share of poop, but even minor concessions made to the source material against Black’s shenanigans it seems almost…respectful. I like that.

Back to the cast. Even though our females leads, Blunt and Peet (which sounds like a home and garden chain) are not much more than wallpaper. Peet and Black have no believable chemistry even with the short screen time, and Blunt is a wooden bodice. Girls, who needs ’em? There is a buddy movie undertone to Gulliver. Y’know, guys and chicks and how to nab ’em. Sure, it’s tired, but pairing Black with mini-Segal makes it work somehow. It was amusing to see Segel playing it straight for once as the lovelorn, earnest Horatio. And Black being the wingman made it feel okay. A kind of dopey okay, but harmless enough. I’ll give it a pass.

O’Dowd however has nothing earnest going for his Admiral Edward. He was such a rich ham and quietly stole the show. What amazed me (and still does; can’t explain it) is that for all Edward’s stuffy, effete Britishness toeing the line of stereotype—think John Cleese meets Margaret Thatcher. Okay, don’t—his performance alternates between brash and all three Stooges. Snicker worthy, not laugh out loud, but enough of those snickers throughout the film to leave an impression. He’s really fun to hate, too. Always a good thing when it comes to booing and hissing the snotty bad guy.

Back the tech stuff again. The only real issue I took with Gulliver‘s delivery is when the third act finally rolls around. Here we descend into outright silliness. I kinda alluded to you watch a film like this with the proper mindset. Read: card-carrying goofball Jack Black as giant; put away your SAG cards. Like all proper three act plays, here’s where it all comes to a head. A very silly head, and I done like’d it. Sue me. Remember, family film. “Epic” showdown with the baddie? Check. Guys get the girls (not matter how superfluous they are here)? Check. Jack Black murdering a rock song with lots of air guitar? Um, duh. F*cking inevitable. He might’ve even done it in that indie drivel Jesus’ Son I covered back during the Ice Age. Oh, well.

In any case, despite—or maybe because of—Letterman’s straight arrow execution, there were enough tweaks and winks slid into his imagining of Gullver to get the audience scratching their collective chins. Amusing is the watchword here, and it was. Cinematic merit? With Jack Black? You’re really asking this? Pishaw. Gulliver decidedly wasn’t a popcorn flick. Gummi Bear flick is more apt.

Okay, class dismissed. Next week, Beckett’s take on Hansel & Gretel. Whatever you do, don’t eat the downspouts.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it, with reservati. Yeah, yeah. Shaddap. Cynical snot like me digging fluff like this? What? You don’t like Gummi Bears? Philistine.


Stray Observations…

  •  “…You’re never really going to get bigger than this.” Foreshadow much?
  • Hey. Whatever happened to “Guitar Hero” anyway? I mean, sure it wasn’t in canon. But still. Guess Swift was a Wii kinda guy.
  • “Inside the castle voice, please.” I’m using that from now on with the kid.
  • Does adding Coffee-Mate to the filter actually work? (later) Nope.
  • Need a flexible, inoffensive British dude as authority figure? Get me Billy Connelly!
  • “But Vice President Yoda can run things without me for a while.” That is a line any sane person would never expect to ever hear in a film with the proper prescription.
  • Prince. Works every time. Ever see Pretty Woman? Scored Roberts three grand.
  • Mini, mini Kiss!
  • Segel’s accent is great, and doesn’t betray his usual patois. It enhanced his character really. Go fig.
  • “Gulliver, you work in the mail room.” “Not today I don’t.” Almost badass, for a family film anyway.

Next Installment…

London comes tumbling down in a Reign Of Fire. The fault lies with the dragons. And Christian Bale. Curse you, Bale.


RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 34: Nat Faxon & Jim Rash’s “The Way Way Back” (2013)


TheWayWayBack-PosterArtVOD


The Players…

Liam James, AnnaSophia Robb, Steve Carrell, Toni Collette and Sam Rockwell, with Rob Corrdry, Amanda Peet, Zoe Levin and Maya Rudolph.


The Story…

A terse summer vacation ensues when 14-year old Duncan is suffered by his ineffectual divorcee mother, her assh*le boyfriend, his petulant teenage daughter, their drunken neighbor, and their cadre of wasteful friends on a trip to the beaches of Long Island. The only thing that could make the trip bearable would be—oh, I dunno—a cute girl next door and a reckless water park employee. Trust me, it works every time.


The Rant…

At their most basal, summer family vacations mostly suck. Sure, you get away to the beach or the lake house for maybe a month, but that also includes having to deal with the members of your extended family that, a) you have seldom seen in years, who know less about you as an individual than you do, and; b) imply a need to act as if such interactions are as normal as breathing.

It gets all cramped. You all start assuming roles, a pecking order. That and most of the cast of characters feel compelled to acting out of character, which further muddies the social waters. You ask yourself why you weren’t just left alone between May and August with the Wii and plenty of Netflix streaming in your own den. Yet there is this prerogative. We’re getting out of the house, to points afar, and we’re gonna have FUN, dammit!

Nothing is less fun than mandatory fun, especially when you’re in your teens.

Here we go again on the way-back machine. Your friendly blogger mines his past to make relevant this installment’s existence…

When I was a kid, about a billion years ago, my grandparents had a monthly rental at a beach community—an incorporated summer village—on New York’s Fire Island. Quit snickering. It’s not all gays and syringes on the shore. Okay, it’s not just that.

The little ville of under 200 was called Saltaire, a little pun openly denied it being dubbed after some seaside town in the UK. Whatever. Fire Island itself is wedged between Coney Island and the Hamptons, and is a protected national seashore. The summer villages were established before Parks & Recreations clamped down in the 1960s. Fire Island is about 25 miles long and a mere quarter mile deep. A barrier island; a big dune bolstered by an aquifer and a lot of scattered cottages floating above, all waving a finger at petulant Momma Nature. The place really shouldn’t be there, it defying tides, climate change and hurricanes.

But there it was, and for me almost a decade of summers. Simple, squat beach coming homes settled against the Atlantic dunes. Some even might’ve had cable. These idylls, pieces of summer humanity bookended by seagull splattered protected dunes and unique species of both waterfowl and pine. To give you an idea about how removed Saltaire was from civilization, there were no cars. There were only boardwalks, quite literally made of boards. The only real motor vehicles around were a pair of beater, MacGyver’d pickup trucks that collected the garbage every Monday. Those and the occasional Rascal scooter. The rest of the time it was bicycles and flip-flops.

It was nice for a kid. I was especially lucky to get away for a month every summer from my boring inland existence to have access to not one, but two beaches to slop around in. To the south was the grey, unpredictable Atlantic, rife with seashells and angry waves that made bodyboarding a Knievel-like activity. To the north was the bay, clouded with jellyfish and puddled ferry exhaust but still some really good fishing. It was like a Caribbean red-headed stepchild, with more seaweed.

Hey. Here’s a fave tidbit of mine regarding the frontier nature of my summer ventures. Fire Island is less than 25 miles outside the City. It’s cradled by the Atlantic and Long Island’s Great South Bay. Winds there reign. A/C was not necessary in Saltaire. The two bodies of water acted like Freon, and with the prevailing winds, the entire island was buffeted all the time by a steady breeze. The temp on Fire Island was usually 15 degrees cooler than in the City, with next to no humidity most of the time.

Here’s another (hey, I’m only trying to establish rapport here): back in the day, cable TV was an expensive rarity out there, and the Internet was nary a wet dream. To get in touch with the outside world, you needed a solid, CRT TV with a pair of rabbit ears. Aerials. Back then, TV freqs still rode on airwaves, and you had to hook up your set with this doohickey to capture said waves to get broadcasts. Being so near the City, one could scoop up programming for free. Really. No cable fees. No HBO either, but hey, we all gotta make sacrifices. I used to get my Law & Order fix this way with virtual crystal clear reception aided by a few strands of aluminum foil. That and I also had the rowdy NYC rock and talk stations (which is where I first heard Howard Stern and the Greaseman) on the radio to comfort me.

This be frontier days.

A good portion of the time was spent away from the TV (and my blessed Nintendo), and being hunkered down with my folks, my sisters, my aunts, their kids, my mom’s parents and the occasional, extra member of my extended, unknown family that I only saw every third Xmas. The place my grandparents rented was pretty accommodating for all these bodies. I at least had a bedroom all to myself, which was often empty because, hey, two beaches. But every night it was sovereign that all 800 of us sat down and had dinner. First and foremost to eat, then to squeeze out whatever convo we could to extol the value made with our day.

This sucked. It was like your third stroll through the SATs. Sure, dinner chat was nice, but having to justify how meaningful your day was praise Jesus? Why? What for? Such a slog. And an embarrassing one at that. With these strangers? We all have to open up? Where’s my Nintendo? I’ve yet to beat Zelda on the Second Quest!

Here the respite of the beach became stifling, us having to make the elephant-in-the-room social mixing every dinner. Trying to maintain a faux-Norman Rockwell-esque image was quite the stressor. C’mon, let’s face facts. As much as you may love your family, being in close proximity with them for too extended a period can drive you all to a scene out of Lord of the Flies. My escape? A lot of the times, I scammed a meal at one of my friends’ places. Sometimes I even cooked. Really, anything to avoid the Gregory House routine. I just wanted to have my own summer, especially when I was a teenager. I needed to be far away from these strange adults what with their pretensions and an inability to socialize without wine and beer.

All right. Maybe back then I didn’t really think that way. Girls and scoring free beer were foremost on my puberty-ridden mind. What I did know that a vacation was supposed to be a getaway far away from what troubled you. Especially off the mainland…


Duncan (James) is on the summer vacation from hell. He finds himself wedged in the airless car with his timid, divorcee mother Pam (Collette), her boorish new boyfriend Trent (Carrell), and his stuck-up daughter Steph (Levin). Duncan and Trent do not get along at all, and now they’re both on their way to three months of antagonism. Duncan wanted to spent his summer with his dad out in California, but no go. Pam wants to establish a new family dynamic with Trent and Steph. Besides, Duncan is only 14, so what say does he have?

After barely a week at Trent’s Long Island summer shack, Duncan soon realizes that this trip is an outing for grown-ups only. He spends his days watching his mom, Trent and his buddies Kip (Corddry) and Joan (Peet) get drunk, high and adolescent along with their boozy neighbor Betty (Janney) who serves as the ringleader for this endless bacchanal. Duncan grinds his teeth and broods and knows if he doesn’t get out this place soon he’s gonna starting looking for a rifle and a clock tower.

At least Duncan finds an ally amidst all this sh*t. Betty’s leggy daughter Susanna (Robb) has been in his place before for many of these summers, and has been so ignored and jaded by these so-called vacations that she’s resigned herself to being a second-class citizen. In her droll manner Susanna puts it best, “It sucks here.”

Having had his fill, Duncan steals a bike and pedals into town for some action, anything else than feel alienated. He stumbles into the local pizza joint for a slice when a ruckus over at the Pac-Man machine catches his ears. Roguish Owen (Rockwell) is rocking the game and gets all philosophical over this arcade classic with the awkward Duncan. Owen recognizes Duncan as one of the hundreds of bored teens he’s seen on vacation here. Turns out, Owen is a manager at the local water park, and offers up Duncan the chance to swing by. Looks like this kid needs a little fun.

Finally, some adult who takes interest in Duncan’s lousy predicament! Duncan finishes up Owen’s game and later scoots over to Water Wizz to see what he’s all about. Turns out there is a side to the town that actually cares about what teens really want out of their summer: breakdancing…


I had a unique opportunity when watching The Way Way Back. I usually watch my movies alone, late at night when I won’t be interrupted. I get all curled up with my pen, clipboard and a few shots of Irish whiskey. Not the case this time.

My Dad had stopped by earlier. He crashed shortly after dinner and came to around midnight for a raid on the fridge. I had already bunkered down with the BD player and my drink, when he wandered into the den and asked what was up. I explained my blog activity. He saw Steve Carrell on the screen and made himself at home on the sofa. Until two in the morning, after the movie had concluded, I shared my first social viewing of the next subject here at RIORI. It reminded me of dinners at Saltaire, but not nearly as excruciating. There was some prodding, like this was a klatsch, but more often than not I kept my comments to myself. Most just went on the clipboard.

As grateful as I am for having my folks introduce me to the magical world of movies at a young, water-headed age, they are INSUFFERABLE to watch actual movies with. I always get an endless bombardment of questions. What’s going on? Who’s that guy? What just happened? What year is this? No, I mean it. Is it 1982 or 2026? What’s this lump on my thigh? Got any more whiskey? A piece of advice: if you really want to watch a movie, do it alone. Unless it’s porn. Then have a trio handy.

Here’s how Back managed to fit under the guidelines of The Standard. The movie was sort of well received, even though its feel had been done before. It wasn’t a flop, but there was a definite round peg/square hole thought process going into the marketing of Back, and its returns reflected that. The producers had a wonky idea in unleashing this little caper on a maybe-suspecting public that may have led to its early theatrical run demise. Back was dropped in the middle of the 2013 summer blockbuster season. A dinky little indie film about a disaffected teen—a tried-and-true but overdone movie device—had to go up against the likes of Pacific Rim, Despicable Me 2 and The Lone Ranger (okay, maybe not such a big threat there). What were the powers-that-be smoking to think that Juno Lite could compete against giant robots, train chases and…well, another Steve Carrell vehicle? This took some balls. Not a lot of brains, but a certain amount of cajones. Well, following your balls makes way for pulling a lot of boners.

Oh, shut up. That’s the best pun you’ve ever heard.

Anyway, a few scenes into The Way Way Back, I got a feeling of—to paraphrase Kurt Cobain—“this smells like Little Miss Sunshine.” I didn’t know until later that co-writer/directors Faxon and Rash wrote Sunshine’s screenplay. I figured that I enjoyed that pastiche well enough that I would enjoy Back, too. I’ll admit, not at first. I felt there was something lacking here, but I couldn’t be sure what. Admittedly, Back is slow to get started and find its footing. The humor takes a while to warm up, but when it eventually does, its momentum is gleeful and sunny without being too cloying.

Back is at heart a character study. It’s got a great ensemble cast, and the plot—approaching but not quite arriving at a derivative coming-of-age story—is well handled by these misfits. At times Back comes perilously close to self-parody; although the cast acts well enough, their roles are stereotypical (James’ awkward teen, Robb’s near-dream girl status, Collete’s willowy divorcee, etc). But there’s some meat on the bones, so I went along with second course.

Steve Carrell as Trent is a delight. He plays smarmy very well, and it’s nice change of pace for him to play against type. Carrell made his mark on The Daily Show playing a bumbling, nervous sort with a streak of naïveté sneaking in the background. With that job and later the movies roles he’s had, he’s carved out a niche as being cuddly. Not here. Trent is a blustery, prickly, condescending lout to everyone, and saves his best sh*t for Duncan. He delivers his cutting remarks with patronizing aplomb. My father’s comments about Trent—being an ardent Carrell fan—with increasing disbelief was repeating “What an assh*le!” punctuated with some giggles. Here Carrell plays a villain we love to hate, and that’s lots of fun.

Our two teen leads, James and Robb, play their ill at ease and snarky characters respectively with ease. I liked how their characters were so down with each other. There’s really no flirtation between them (well, not at first), just two shoved aside kids who befriend each other through their lonesomeness and shared unhappiness. Misery loves company and all that. It’s often how you make friends for the duration of a lousy family vacation in an unfamiliar place. And you can practically taste Duncan’s awkwardness on his little jaunt. F*ck, you can see it. Does James have a hunchback with that posture? And his flat affect throughout most of the film becomes such a badge of honor that when he actually cracks a smile, it’s almost jarring.

Robb has a subtle sass. Her aloofness and sarcasm teeters towards another teen stereotype: the unattainable girl next door. What’s nice here is that Faxon and Rash turn this concept on its ear. It is Susanna that seeks out Duncan, rather than the other way ‘round. Sensing his despair, Susanna figures she’s found a sympathetic ear to bend. Her mom and dad are recently divorced too, so there you have it. It’s the subtle touches here and there that makes Back work.

What’s not subtle at all in Back is Rockwell’s Owen, the slovenly, unhinged Water Wizz manager. I really liked him. A lot. His Owen was a f*cking riot, and Rockwell walked away with the movie. He had the best lines, and delivered them with such offhand, wicked humor that I was snickering then eventually laughing out loud. He reminded me of Bill Murray in Meatballs, alternating between d*ckhead and brotherly with equal effectiveness. Why isn’t he in more movies? He’s got “reliable character actor” written all over him.

What I got out of Back, if there was any real message to convey, was an examination of outsider status. Duncan and Susanna feel neglected and dissed. Trent crowbars his way into Pam’s already fragile state-of-mind, as well as Kip, Betty and Joan beating her over the head with wine, weed and all-night parties on the beach. Owen just loves being the rogue monkey, and flaunts being an oddball to any willing audience (or unwilling, as his long-suffering girlfriend Caitlyn, played gamely by Maya Rudolph). The entire cast is made up of fishes out of water, and we all at some point in or lives feel left of center. Pick your character from Back’s cast and play piggyback.

There are some films that challenge you, what with terse characters, labyrinthine plotting, dark humor and/or gut-wrenching dramatics. Back has none of that, and sometimes that works. Back is equal parts juvenile and dramatic, both with a light, offbeat touch (e.g.: the breakdancing scene). Yes, it’s offbeat, but manages to steer clear of the hackneyed term “quirky” that so plagues films like this one. I think “quirky” has replaced “original” as the go-to word to describe an indie film that defies a once undeniable uniqueness, at least by the pros. No, Back is not original, but it does have enough body to kept it afloat. I wouldn’t mind watching it again, so I got that going for me. Which is nice.

I know I’ve been pretty reserved and polite in this review. Back put me in a mellow mood that lasted until the next day. A first. And frankly I needed a break. After three crappy movies in a row, Back was a welcome respite. Not to worry though. I’m looking down the barrel of an action flick staring former Oscar shoo-in Jodie Foster. Next time I’ll return to being snarky and vicious. Promise.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Yeah, it takes a while to build up steam. But if you’re patient, it’ll ultimately be rewarding. Just keep holding…and holding. Still holding. Okay, you’re cleared for holding…


Stray Observations…

  • Did I mention that Back had some really good pacing? The movie ran a little over 90 minutes, and for this story, that was the Goldilocks zone.
  • “Not even food courts are safe.”
  • Pac-Man as philosophy? Candy Land as metaphor? I played a lot of video and board games at Saltaire. None of them spoke to me beyond “destroy your opponent.” Wait a minute…
  • “Enjoy therapy.”
  • The plate-clearing scene. Almost heartbreaking.
  • “The car’s just the right amount of sh*tty.”
  • A Fleetwood Mac reference?
  • It took me a while to divine the meaning of the movie’s title. On the road trip to Saltaire, we borrowed my grandparents’ huge Ford LTD wagon to transport all our sh*t. The trunk was so spacious, it even had a flip up seat like a Murphy bed, facing backwards. We commonly called this sitting in “the way, way back” of the car. The movie starts with Duncan balefully staring out from the way, way back, and (SPOILER) concludes that way too. A better metaphor than Candy Land, I think.

Next Installment…

Jodie Foster’s kid’s gone missing on her cross-country flight! This wasn’t in the Flightplan!