'The Way, Way Back' Borrows All the Wrong Things From Classic Summer Comedies

Generation X has entered midlife. That means the people to whom I entrust my existence, like doctors and airline pilots, are the same age as—yikes—me. It also means that Hollywood is run by people I could have gone to high school with. They grew up watching the same movies I watched. They don't always remember what was good about them.

Take J.J. Abrams. His 2011 science-fiction film Super 8 paid homage to Steven Spielberg's E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and even bore a Spielberg producer credit. Abrams successfully recapitulated superficial aspects of Spielberg's films, but he forgot to capture important truths about people, about why they do what they do, the way Spielberg did. Whoops!

Now come Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Oscar-winning screenwriters of The Descendants. They co-wrote and co-directed the summery comedy The Way, Way Back, a pastiche of the summery Carter-era comedies Caddyshack and Meatballs, in which sensitive teenage boys are mentored by glib hipsters. The uneven Meatballs isn't really worth remembering, except as an early big-screen showcase for Bill Murray's comic lunacy. Caddyshack, though, is a classic, thanks to the stars' inspired performances and some thought-provoking material in the screenplay.

In writing The Way, Way Back, Faxon and Rash retained Caddyshack's sophomoric humor, but they left out the thought-provoking material. Likewise, their cast can't compare to Caddyshack's powerhouse ensemble, though there is some good acting. In particular, Toni Collette is lovely as Pam, a divorced mom who tries to humor her pushy boyfriend (Steve Carell) and simultaneously not alienate her 14-year-old son, Duncan (Liam James), the movie's hero. This is also a good turn by Carell, and mainly not a comedic one; his character, Trent, is smarmy and cruel.

I wish I were more excited about James' performance, because he is in just about every scene. What he mainly does is brood. The film feels long at 103 minutes. That's a lot of brooding.

Trent, Pam and Duncan are on summer vacation. They are staying at Trent's beach house, where the next-door neighbor is a kooky lush played by Allison Janney, the West Wing star who was brutally funny in last year's Liberal Arts. She's also funny here, though I cringed in response to the many mean-spirited jokes her character makes at the expense of her young son and his lazy eye. It's an instance of the screenwriting's limpness—Faxon and Rash seem to think that A.) a kid with a lazy eye is intrinsically hilarious, and B.) a joke about a kid with a lazy eye gets funnier and funnier the more it is told.

Duncan is unhappy. He misses his dad. Trent's friends (Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet) are insufferable. At first there only seems to be one consolation: Susanna, the cutie in the beach house next door, played by AnnaSophia Robb. I got to know Robb's work this year on her CW series The Carrie Diaries, the Sex and the City prequel. I'm a Sex and the City fan and dutifully tuned in, not expecting much. I was pleasantly surprised, in no small part because Robb is an appealing Carrie. She's also appealing in The Way, Way Back as someone we all remember from high school, the pretty girl who is accepted by the popular kids but is smarter than them, more complicated than them. The film's most poignant sequences all involve Robb, and make me remember warm summer nights and tentative teenage romance.

But we don't see a lot of Robb after Duncan stumbles upon the summer's most important distraction, a water park called Water Wizz. (That name says all you need to know about the sophistication of the film's humor.) Water Wizz is managed by a fast-talking wise guy named Owen (Sam Rockwell). An overgrown kid who's veering headlong toward middle age, he mercilessly teases the water park's young patrons, who adore him. He can't commit to his girlfriend (Maya Rudolph), who rolls her eyes at him. As Owen, Rockwell really hams it up. He comes perilously close to being kind of awful, in fact. But the jokes are pretty good, and Rockwell is totally committed to his gonzo character.

Duncan begins working at the park, and that's when the storytelling teeters on chaos. A series of largely unrelated vignettes play out there, including a breakdancing scene that is an amusing diversion but that makes no sense in context. Owen becomes a surrogate father to Duncan, as Bill Murray did to Chris Makepeace in Meatballs. For better or worse, The Way, Way Back owes a lot to Meatballs, including a nerdy character who gets picked on by the cool people because he's just such a nerd. On behalf of nerds everywhere, I protest.