Liam James and Sam Rockwell in "The Way Way Back."

For, July 26, 2013

Coming-of-age comedies are a dime a dozen but "The Way Way Back" is something special, focusing on 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) whose divorced mother (Toni Collette) has taken up with an obnoxious lout named Trent (Steve Carell), and as the film opens Trent is spiriting them, along with his own dour teenage daughter (Zoe Levin), to a seaside resort for the summer.

When his mother isn't looking, Duncan is constantly put down by Trent, and is quickly losing whatever self-esteem he once had. The boy's sense of humor is also lying dormant until it gets a nudge from the film's requisite man-child, Owen (Sam Rockwell), manager of the local water park. Owen takes Duncan under his wing, gives him a job and brings him out of his shell. And he gets a little help from the older teenage girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb).

Watching Duncan evolve is just one of the film's great pleasures, and in the more serious roles, Collette, Carell, Robb and especially James are excellent.

But Rockwell steals the movie in a hilarious portrayal, dropping witty one-liners left and right while developing an honest father-figure relationship with Duncan, which remains rooted in reality despite the laughs Rockwell garners every time he's onscreen. And Rockwell is not the only funny one here: Allison Janney, as the loud, blowsy divorced woman next door; Maya Rudolph as a more subtle but still amusing water-park character; and Jim Rash, as an employee who keeps quitting the park but never leaves, are all hilarious. (Rash and Nat Faxon, who's also onscreen, co-wrote and co-directed the film.)

If, like me, you are weary of explosions, monsters and CGI-heavy summer flicks, check out "The Way Way Back." You won't be disappointed.


New Hollywood movies this week include "Lee Daniels' The Butler" (rated PG-13), based on the true story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a black man who served as White House butler to eight presidents over three decades, including the height of the civil-rights movement, with an all-star supporting cast led by Oprah Winfrey; "Paranoia" (PG-13), about a low-level corporate employee (Liam Hemsworth) coerced by his boss (Gary Oldman) into spying on a rival company (run by Harrison Ford); "Jobs" (PG-13), a biography of Apple entrepreneur Steve Jobs (Ashton Kutcher); and "Kick-Ass 2" (R),  comic-book superhero action comedy sequel about teens putting on costumes to fight crime in the streets.

New art films are both Danish, "The Hunt" (R) at the Broadway Centre Cinemas, about a schoolteacher falsely accused of pedophilia, and "A Hijacking" (R) at the Tower Theater, about a cargo ship in the Indian ocean attacked by Somali pirates.