UPDATE: Sources close to The Way, Way Back confirm that Fox Searchlight has settled a deal to distribute the comedy for just under the record $10.5 million the company paid for Little Miss Sunshine in 2006. Terms are settled and negotiations are over, with Searchlight planning an announcement shortly.
Anyone who thought the Sundance Film Festival would suffer a post-first-weekend malaise did not anticipate The Way, Way Back, a throwback summer comedy from Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Oscar-winning screenwriters of The Descendents. There were 1,001 possible versions of Way Back that could’ve been made — 1,000 of them forgettable — but their tale of an awkward teenager (Liam James) whose nightmare beach vacation with his mom (Toni Collette) and her obnoxious boyfriend (Steve Carell) is salvaged by a gonzo mentor (Sam Rockwell) received a standing ovation from the capacity crowd at Park City’s Eccles Theater Monday afternoon.
Rash, who stars as Dean Pelton on NBC’s Community, was emotional even before the film started, indicative of the eight long years it took to bring their script to the screen and the personal nature of the protagonist’s struggle. In the first scene of the film, Duncan (James) is sitting in the way, way back of an old-fashioned station wagon when his potential stepfather callously asks how the teen grades himself on an attractiveness scale of 1 to 10. When the kid reluctantly answers 6, the grownup corrects him with only a 3. “That was inspired by a piece of a true story from me,” Rash said after the screening. “As I was asked what I thought I was on a scale of 1 to 10 by my stepfather at the time during a car trip to Michigan. We knew that was a great launch for understanding Duncan’s journey.”
Carell fearlessly plays a total heel — think Craig Kilborn in Old School — but the subsequent scene, a 10-pager that is entirely a boozy Allison Janney ranting about her obnoxious beach neighbors, charted the story in the right comic direction. Everywhere you turn in the movie, there’s another one of your favorite funny people, from Maya Rudolph to Rob Corddry to Amanda Peet to Rash and Faxon themselves. “There were no auditions or table reads,” says Faxon, who stars on Fox’s Ben and Kate and joined Rash in directing for the first time. “It was literally just us wanting to surround ourselves with really talented, cool people to work with. Just being on set and having people say the lines and just having it be exactly as you imagined it is like the coolest, most gratifying feeling.”
But the biggest reason people might be talking about The Way, Way Back for a long time — and quoting it ad nauseum — is Rockwell, who simply pulls off the best Meatballs/Stripes/Ghostbusters-era Bill Murray since the legend himself. In this case, Rockwell’s Owen works — or pretends to work — at the local waterpark, but it may as well be a summer camp, a golf course, or the army. Rash says that Rockwell immediately understood the Murray-esque colors of the character, and that the similarities between the two men extended off screen, too. “We knew it had to be him, but we didn’t know Sam,” says Rash. “So we reached out to him and we were in a car [when he called]; we pulled over beside a golf course because we thought we were going to give a big spiel about why he’d be great for the movie, why first-time directors would be great, and he just goes, ‘Yeah, let’s just do this. Alright?’ It was such a not-Hollywood moment.”
The Way, Way Back has to be considered a contender for Sundance’s Audience Award, and its warm reception and broad appeal potential will likely not go unnoticed by distributors. “Nat and I grew up on John Hughes and Meatballs and all these movies that, I look back and I go, ‘Oh my God, they put these kids in risky situations,” says Rash. “But you understood the trust that they had. John Hughes knew how to explore teen problems without talking down to it. So we really, if anything, wanted to create a nostalgic feeling of a movie that hopefully crosses all those lines for everybody.”