In “The Way Back,” Ben Affleck, somber and looming, with a no-frills conviction he hasn’t shown as an actor in quite some time, plays Jack Cunningham, a former high-school basketball superstar who never made it big and has fallen on hard times. Jack, now in his mid-40s, is a Los Angeles construction worker who drinks all day long, mostly hiding the booze in plain sight. On his break at a skyscraper building site, he sips from a metal canister (no one has to know that there’s vodka in there), and he’s a nightly customer at a tin-shack dive called Harold’s Place, where he sits around laughing and doing shots with the other regulars — which, of course, just looks like “regular” behavior (though Jack, as often as not, gets walked home by one of the aging patrons).
What stays hidden is that Jack has a can of Cutters beer in his morning shower, and can put away a dozen more of them at night; he’s drinking away his misery and drowning his soul. “The Way Back” is a last-shot-at-redemption sports movie, and it’s set in motion when Jack gets a call, out of the blue, from Father Devine (Jack Aylward), the elfin headmaster at Bishop Hayes, Jack’s old parochial school, where he is still a jock legend. Would Jack like to take over as head basketball coach?
That you can more or less fill in the blanks of what happens next means that “The Way Back” is an addiction drama that is also a genre movie — it’s like “Hoosiers” seen through a shot glass darkly. (That 1986 film, too, had a recovering alcoholic, played by Dennis Hopper, though his character wasn’t center stage, and the Oscar that Hopper got nominated for stood in for the nomination he should have gotten for “Blue Velvet.”) In “The Way Back,” there are questions to be answered and mysteries to be solved. Why does Jack drink so much? And when he quits, which happens fairly early on, will his lunge toward sobriety be followed by a fall off the wagon? Will his team of ragtag hoop dreamers pull themselves together to become champions? We can’t guess the specifics, but we know the answers to most of these questions in our moviegoing reptile brains.
“The Way Back” is a perfectly watchable movie, but it’s far from a home run, and one of the ironic reasons for that relates to the conviction that Ben Affleck brings to it. A million years ago (actually, in the 1940s and ’50s), the showbiz tabloids were used by Hollywood to market movie stars; they became a place to plant carefully tailored stories that complimented the stars’ on-screen images. All of that still goes on, of course (much of it in mainstream publications), but the world of showbiz glossies is now an industry that operates with reckless freedom. It can influence the way we feel about TV and movie stars, reinforcing but (in many cases) undercutting their onscreen images. And though the tabloids are driven by an increasingly prominent fake-news side (if you believe them, Jennifer Aniston has been pregnant at least once a year for the last two decades), a certain sordid true-life authenticity does come through. Once in a while, the offscreen tale of a star’s life has a way of becoming, in effect, a movie all its own.
For anyone who has followed The Saga of Ben Affleck (which, in a sense, goes back 18 years — his romance with Jennifer Lopez felt like the blast-off of the 24/7 gossip culture), it’s easy to feel that Affleck’s ups and downs have added up to a more riveting movie than any film he has made since “Argo.” Which doesn’t mean, really, that we know anything but the raw outlines of it. Yet Affleck himself has come clean about his life, notably in a recent New York Times profile. At this point, the story of his roller-coaster addictions, his on-again, off-again, and finally broken marriage to Jennifer Garner, and his whole fractured-daddy-and-sorrowful-ex-husband vibe of crash-and-burn celebrity tragedy feels like some cautionary case study of a dude who had it all and kept figuring out a way to lose it. The fact that we have to imagine most of the details —the benders and the Vegas gambling jags, the marital therapy, the prisoner-of-fame isolation — only adds to the weird cinematic thrust of it all.
That Affleck has now put his life out there to publicize “The Way Back” doesn’t mean that he’s engaged in anything vulgar or self-exploitative. He’s saying, quite openly, that he was drawn to this story because he knows it from the inside out. He has lived it and, therefore, he can find the hard truth and humanity in it.
That’s a fair, and compelling, hook for a movie. But there’s one way that it raises the bar: There have been many films about alcoholism, and based on our knowledge of what Affleck has been through, we go into “The Way Back” eager to touch a raw nerve of experience. It’s there, at moments, in Affleck’s performance, and the film is well-staged by director Gavin O’Connor. Yet the script, by Brad Inglesby, is a pile-up of situations that, without necessarily being farfetched, feel like elevated clichés. “The Way Back” plays well enough, yet the trouble with it isn’t just that it evokes far more penetrating dramas of addiction. It’s that the entire time we’re watching it, there’s a more compelling addiction drama staring us right in the face. Namely, the story of Ben Affleck.
He’s terrific in the early scenes, when Jack visits his sister’s family for Thanksgiving and we see what a short fuse he has, especially if anyone questions his drinking. Reaching for another brew, or another slug of cheap vodka, he’s weary and energized at the same time; he’s like a spent vampire, morosely bearded in the mode of someone who can’t be bothered to shave. And the basketball scenes are rough and shaggy in a convincing way. The delinquent side of some of the players, like the gifted but overly confident Marcus (Melvin Gregg), isn’t overstated, and it’s enthralling to see Jack’s instincts as a coach emerge from muscles he hasn’t flexed in years. Once he gets onto the court for league games, his competitive instinct kicks in, and there’s a running joke about the swearing he does on the sidelines. “You gotta be fuckin’ blind,” he yells. “That’s a horseshit call!” The cussing brings him into conflict with Father Whelan (Jeremy Radin), a gently scolding school official, but what we see is that the problem isn’t really the bad words. It’s the rage behind them.
So why did Jack become a drunk? I won’t reveal why, but I will say that the reasons are such…reasons. Jack and his wife, Angela (Janina Gavankar), have been separated for a year, but even when he learns, to his despair, that she’s seeing someone else, he finds the strength to draw himself back from his nightly abyss of booze. He’s self-medicating (clearly), and he quits all by himself (which is, in fact, a rather alcoholic thing to do): no 12-step program, no counseling. He lets the inspiration of basketball fill the void, and for a good long stretch it works.
Until it doesn’t. “The Way Back” times its hitting-bottom moment in an arresting way (it comes much later than you expect), but I wish the inciting event were different. You could say that it doesn’t matter — that the drama of drinking takes on a life of its own. Yet beneath the authenticity of its staging, there’s a moralistic simplicity to “The Way Back.” The film is too programmatic an illustration of how bad things happen to good people. (And the way that Jack’s basketball career got derailed in the ’90s becomes a case of too much backstory told in cause-and-effect shorthand.) What I think the movie misses is that in our addictive society, people don’t necessarily drink for reasons that are this tidy. The self-sabotage can be more unruly than that. I’d love to see Affleck star in a film about an addict with nothing to explain his addiction but his own flawed, desperate, hungry soul. That’s a movie that could speak to us — the way that Ben Affleck’s real story already does — far more than this modestly well-made Sunday-school lesson.