(This is Part Two of John Wilmes’ deep dive into “The Way Back,” a movie where Ben Affleck drinks in public and tells high school kids about how to dominate on the court. Please read part one here. Onward!)
Some things that have occurred to me as the first half of “The Way Back” has fermented in my head, heart, and my penis:
-The movie is weak. It is neither tragic nor uplifting enough to play itself as a straight drama, which it tries to do. In order to be a better movie, it should aspire to a different range. This should not be a spare tragedy. This movie should indulge its demons past their bland neutrals, into the color of the bizarre or the comic. It is grey and dull as it is. Hyperbolizing Affleck’s drinking could achieve a palette elevation, as could giving him a goofy little dance to do, or a really tangy catchphrase. There could be more creativity in his relationships with his players, as well. What if he got drunk with them, and truly crossed a line? This movie is too Catholic to tell the truth about its circumstances and it’s boring. Watching it is the same thing as going through catechism school, which you might be thinking is tight, but it isn’t tight.
-Affleck is clearly doing this movie because he likes its message. In the year 2020 Ben Affleck has no financial or career-building reason to act, so all roles he chooses—aside from bazonga-sized crash grabs like playing Batman—are deeply revealing. His role choices, at this point, are a fairly direct line into his worldview. Ben Affleck really likes sports and Catholicism, because they both offer repentance and recovery. Personally speaking Catholicism—a system of lies and weird hats that I was raised to believe in—has never offered me repentance or recovery, though sports have. I have forced myself to watch a lot of bad sports because I believe there is some sort of religious value in doing so. At least that’s what my actions have told me. I have a hard time saying explicitly or with full knowledge what I believe in. I don’t think Ben Affleck has that problem, because he has let Catholicism solve it for him.
-Just realized I recognized Affleck’s ex-wife because she is also on AppleTV’s “The Morning Show,” an insane program. The actress’s name is Janina Gavankar, and she is from Joliet, Illinois. I used to roll with a guy from Joliet and he called it “The Joilet.”
….alright, we’re back in. I am watching this the morning after the Nuggets got stomped by the Clippers. Kawhi Leonard on the break is one of my favorite things in basketball because he is my favorite player at what I’ll call The Pause—he is so good at stopping for just that one little part of a second, and at perfectly anticipating when players are going to keep moving when he pauses. He is like a machete through coverage and schemes when he does this, and all the more so because he never emotes. Watching him do this is like watching videos of really good knives cutting through stuff, is what I am saying, though I think the knives are more emotional than he is. Very cool.
Anyway, Affleck is now making the kid he drove home (also the kid he has been leaning on too hard at practice) the new team captain. At the next game Affleck’s sleeves are rolled down and you can see his Aquaman-style tattoos. Then he is wearing a METALLICA t-shirt during a practice. Both of these things happen during a classic Things Are Getting Better Montage. They win more games! Affleck is teaching the boys the value of TAKING A CHARGE and PRESSING ALL GAME LONG. His character clearly doesn’t watch or value the NBA because it Ruins Good Men instead of Molding Good Men.
During the montage the kids get to dance on the bus. Also, Affleck cockblocks the white boy Kenny repeatedly, to make him get on the team bus on time. The ladies love Kenny! He also makes him windsprint while hungover.
Affleck meets up with his ex-wife again. They go to some kind of birthday party together, a party for a kid. She keeps looking over at him at the party. The score becomes ominous for some reason. Are we about to RELAPSE? Oh shit, now we’re getting a reveal of some kind. Affleck and his wife had a nine-year-old son who died. They are putting flowers on his grave at the cemetery. This movie has filled the PATHOS bucket with more shit than it can reasonably bear.
Affleck and ex-wife talk in the car. He says he’s still suffering. He says he’s still angry. This movie is veering hard into Bummer For No Reason territory—a critique my father once made about “Mystic River” and which applies to a good portion of the Clint Eastwood filmography. But Eastwood is an auteur who taps a singular vein. Whoever directed this movie is NOT that. (Sidenote: Joey D. saw this movie in the theater and left it saying “An Affleck grieving in a seaside town about his dead kid. Should’ve called it Manchester By The Three”).
Affleck’s sister and his family come over and she tells him, in front of everyone, that he needs a new shower curtain. Owned. Affleck’s nephew is a budding basketball nerd. He is trying to find his way into his uncle’s heart via basketball analytics.
The team suffers a rough loss. They are ahead on the road and choke late, giving it all away. Affleck gets into it with Sal, who is reffing this one. He loses his mind on him and is ejected from the game. He gives a ride home to the captain, who asks him why he quit basketball when his career was blooming. Affleck tells him his DAD resented his talent. Daddy issues drove him straight out of his passionhouse. Then he got into drugs, also to hurt his dad. Fucking Catholic motherfuckers, man. Just stop!!!!
Affleck goes to visit the new captain’s dad, who works at a big fishing dock. The new captain’s dad is not into the visit. He is not into his son being so invested in basketball. The game chewed him up and spit him out, just as it did to Affleck, as the captain’s dad has it. And it will do the same to his son, he says. Maybe sport WON’T bring us together and give us purpose?? The ideology of this movie is going through a seismic challenge that, frankly, has me concerned about the value of sport.
Now they are facing a super-talented team with an asshole coach, who was prickish to Affleck and his boys earlier in the movie. I feel they will be killed and Affleck will relapse, before the big finale. I know that challenge is prominently afoot because there are 38 minutes left in the movie. Also because the score has dropped out and made me feel the scary notes a little more. Sound-engineering has been ramped up here to make the dribbles of the ball by the other team all sound like deeply painful, hard-thudding heartbeats.
Oh shit, maybe I was wrong? The score has returned to the mix. A slow gentle piano, tinkling through some bright, rising chords. Resolve. Moxie. Savvy. Togetherness. Big Comeback. The Glory of Sport. Love. Fighting Back. The Path Through the Boozy Forest of Pain, The Way Back, The Only Way Back, Our Boys Have Really Done It This Time. The douchy coach on the other team is fucking t r i g g e r e d by this comeback.
Before the final play of the game Affleck draws up an elaborate play, then scraps it and tells his precious new captain to take the big shot, to embrace Mamba Mentality. This is, perhaps, a byzantine way of exercising his own daddy issues. Affleck is back into his passionhouse and mad dads everywhere are just going to have to deal with these buckets. Captain makes the shot and they win the game. Affleck rises from his seat in reverence, slow-mo. He looks like he is getting his dick sucked. Still shot and fade-out of Affleck smiling contentedly as he walks off the court.
Affleck gets a call from his ex in the next scene. Now her nephew is also sick. Another kid is going to die? This PATHOS overload would be comical if it wasn’t just so…. bad? You can’t just pile up suffering and dying children randomly in a movie about basketball, in order to make the power of sport seem more real. This is a mess. Also Affleck’s ex’s family is clearly supposed to be Latinx, though the actress is 100% Indian. Hollywood, baby.
Affleck freaks out and flees the scene at the hospital. He is going to RELAPSE for sure. There are 27 minutes left in the movie. The score is now a scarily tumbling piano, ambling through dark chords as Affleck goes back to the bar, and is then walked home by Doc all over again. Doc says “I used to carry [your old man] up the stairs” like this too. I really hate this movie.
Affleck is absent from practice. Nerd coach has to lead the way. Affleck is awake late and rushes to practice. He seems to be still drunk. After the practice he is sneaking whiskey into his water, in his office. The nerd coach comes into his office with the school’s main priest, and they fire him for being d r u n k on the job. 22 minutes left. I hate this movie and I need it to end. Affleck tries to keep his job but they aren’t having it. He tells the nerd coach that he is, indeed, a nerd, as he gives away his office keys.
Affleck is, ugh, back at the bar. A woman at the bar keeps buying him shots. He leaves with her, he is driving drunk. They get into a horrible accident with a parked boat. Aye aye aye. Affleck races off before anyone catches him. He is supposed to meet the woman in her house but he goes into the wrong house, and a guy threatens him with a baseball bat. The guy pushes him out of his house and he falls down a stairway and a hill. He is bloody. Lord, please spare me from this stupid film.
Affleck wakes up in a hospital. His sister is there. Please cast Michaela Watkins in better movies than this shit. Now we get a Therapy Montage. Plenty of montages in this movie. Montages and unearned pathos, and a complete lack of levity or insight. A pretense of gravity that the story absolutely does not deliver. A terrible movie, really; one of the worst I can remember watching. I cannot wait for it to be over. “We can’t change the past,” Affleck’s therapist tells him. Is this…. The Way Back?
Affleck’s ex-wife visits him in recovery. They hug. He is progressing in self-awareness. He says he knows that he failed. She cries. Affleck and the actress flirted a lot during the promo of this movie. But as we all know Affleck is dating Ana de Armas IRL.
Another montage. We JUST had one. Hopeful piano music. Affleck calls the nerd coach while he is on the bus with the team. The team is saying a PRAYER before a big game. A hand-clap rhythm has entered the piano score. Twee as fuck. They say they want to win this game for Affleck. The captain’s dad is at the game now, wearing a HUGE chain.
We move forward to Affleck holding a basketball by the water in the sun. He shoots a jumper, alone on the court, and we go out over him hustling as the camera zooms out and the sun sets. We hear some radio chatter about how Affleck led the team’s amazing turnaround. Credits hit and I am free.
CORBIN QUESTION: Hey John, Corbin here. So, uhh, he doesn’t get his job back?
No, he does not.