In “The Way Back,” Ben Affleck, no stranger to rehab and relapse, plays a high school basketball coach battling alcoholism. The character mirrors the actor’s own struggles so much that it’s hard to see where Ben Affleck ends and Jack Cunningham begins. The movie is better off because of that. It’s easily Affleck’s best performance in years and he serves it neat, straight up with no chaser. It’s colored so perfectly with the dark shadings of a lost soul you’re tempted to hug the lug with the puffy sad-eyes and a middle almost as thick as his beard.
But, if you think this is a typical sports drama, you’d be wrong. Basketball is merely the vehicle to explore Jack’s emotional journey. OK, there is a buzzer-beater in a big game, and some other genre clichés, but the script, co-written by director Gavin O’Connor (“The Accountant,” also with Affleck) and Brad Ingelsby (“Out of the Furnace”), focuses on the rocky road to recovery.
Jack is the proverbial drunk with a heart of Johnnie Walker gold. He loves his nephew, shows up for family holidays, still loves his ex-wife Angela (Janina Gavankar). But nothing can break him of the routine of beer for breakfast, a roadie in the travel mug, a loaded cooler in the back of his beat-up Chevy Blazer and shots at the dive bar before stumbling home. Rinse and repeat. True to all functioning alcoholics, he declares “I’m fine” to all who dare ask, including his concerned sister (Michaela Watkins).
A phone call from Father Edward Devin (John Aylward) starts to break the cycle. Jack is asked to coach the boys varsity basketball team at his alma mater Bishop Hayes, scene of his glory days as the best player in the school’s history. (OK, I don’t believe Affleck as a high school hoops phenom, either, but just go with it).
In the name of creating drama, Jack is initially reluctant, having written off basketball and squandering a scholarship to a top college just to stick it to his Pops. Predictably, Jack takes the team of underdogs from last place to the playoffs, coaching with a chip on his shoulder and instructing his boys to master the “little things.” Will Jack follow his own advice?
Clichés are hard to avoid in genre movies and half-way through, the script reveals the source of Jack’s emotional distress, and it’s a big one that nearly sinks everything. It’s almost too wretched to be believed. But, all you need to do is read the film’s title to know Jack will go where he needs to go. There’s a tearful mea culpa between Jack and Angela and it’s impossible not to wonder if a similar scenario happened between Affleck and ex Jennifer Garner. Art certainly imitates life and the material plays to Affleck’s stiff-upper-lip strength. These smaller-scale and more intimate parts suit him.
Yet there’s no escaping the sensation that you’ve seen this movie many times before. So you cling to the stories within the story, like Jack puffing up a potential star in Brandon (Brandon Wilson), who’s suffering from a severe lack of confidence. The rest of the supporting players are one-note characters present to prop up Jack’s story - and to drive him home from the bar when he’s legless. Two standouts are Jeremy Radin as Father Mark Whelan, efficiently fueling a running joke about Jack’s inability to stop dropping F-bombs on the sidelines, and Al Madrigal as the by-the-book assistant coach. It is Affleck’s raw and vulnerable performance that’s the main event, though, and it’s good to have him back in the win column.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
“The Way Back”
Cast: Ben Affleck, Brandon Wilson, Michaela Watkins, Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankar.
(R for language throughout including some sexual references.)