The Way Back

★★★★

Ben Affleck is underrated. There, I said it. For every Gigli or Surviving Christmas there are a handful of other credits that outshine the missteps. Dude’s done more right in front of and behind the camera than he’s done wrong. He was the quintessential asshole of some teenage favorites (Dazed and Confused, Mallrats). He was the misguided albeit well-intentioned heart of an indie classic (Chasing Amy). He co-wrote, co-starred in and won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for one of the best movies of the ‘90s (Good Will Hunting). He held his own in a supporting role in one of the most misguidedly decided Best Picture winners of all-time (Shakespeare in Love … still good, but Saving Private Ryan like a muthafucka!). He’s four for four as a director … I’m still stan for Live by Night (crappy Sienna Miller performance and all) … gimme Robert Richardson photographed noir-tinged crime pictures seven days a week and twice on Sunday. He’s been an entertaining and thoughtful guest on Real Time with Bill Maher and is entirely amusing on numerous supplementary feature commentary tracks (see the aforementioned Mallrats and Armageddon). He may have tackled his toughest role to date in The Way Back, playing a washed-up high school and college basketball star-turned alcoholic-turned high school basketball coach … all while trying to maintain his own sobriety in actuality (Affleck entered a rehabilitation facility shortly before shooting the film.).

Affleck reteams with his The Accountant director Gavin O’Connor to portray Jack Cunningham, recently separated from his wife, Angela (Janina Gavankar – Shivakamini Somakandarkram!), day drinking his way through a construction job and going full bore boozehound by night. Jack’s substance abuse issues have distanced him from his sister, Beth (SNL alum Michaela Watkins). He’s offered a position to coach basketball at his Catholic high school alma mater by Father Edward Devine (E.R. alum John Aylward). Jack struggles to maintain a balance between boozing and b-balling and the team loses often at the onset, but he’s eventually able to break through to his ragtag group of players and the tides turn. Rounding out the cast are comedian Al Madrigal as Jack’s assistant coach, a perfectly cast Matthew Glave (The Wedding Singer’s Glenn Guglia) as a dickhead rival coach and T.K. Carter (Mylo from Good Morning, Miss Bliss AKA middle school Saved by the Bell only set in Indianapolis as opposed to Los Angeles) as the star player’s distant Pop.

O’Connor has proven himself to have a great proficiency when it comes to making sports pictures. The Way Back is the weakest of the bunch, but when the competition is Miracle (2004) and Warrior (2011) that’s not really a slight. The movie is less focused on sports than it is on being a character study. The basketball sequences aren’t given too many flourishes, but one could argue the game isn’t nearly as cinematically dynamic as say football or boxing. It’s in these character moments that The Way Back truly shines. This is one of the best performances of Affleck’s career … he’s extremely vulnerable and even surprisingly comedic in the role. Basketball, the team, everything takes a backseat to Jack, his quest for sobriety and the stumbling blocks that come along the way. I venture to guess The Way Back was a therapeutic experience for Affleck … I certainly hope it was and the proof appears to be in the pudding.

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