The only reason to see The Way Back – a competently made by-the-numbers redemption story about a high school basketball team and the former star turned boozehound who coaches them – and himself – to victory – is because famous celebrity drunk Ben Affleck is playing the one-time celebrity turned drunk.
How good is he in the role he was born to play? Let’s find out!
For one thing, Affleck certainly has the stocky stance of the professional drinker down pat right from the start. He’s a guy drinking out of sadness so there are no good time montages here: he just drinks all the time – in the shower, on the sly at work, and until he can’t stand at the same bar his dad used to get blotto in.
Fortunately, the film doesn’t oversell this stuff (which is often the problem with these kind of redemption films) – he’s a functioning drunk and there’s no real reason why he couldn’t go on drinking forever if he wanted to.
The trick when watching drunks on the big screen is to check out the eyes. Affleck has the beady-eyed squint down pat, but you can tell he’s an actor drawing on past memory rather than a current drunk. For one thing, his eyes just aren’t watery enough – fans of drunk acting really should check out Jon Hamm in Keeping Up with the Joneses, in which he plays someone who doesn’t take a drink throughout the entire film but most definitely looks like he’s on the sauce. The decision to keep the actual drunk acting here to a minimum is a smart one, because Affleck’s physical drunk acting isn’t up to much. He stumbles, he staggers, but it’s all pretty pro forma: there’s nothing here that comes close to the scene in Bad Santa where Billy Bob Thornton is gradually revealed coming up an escalator and every fiber of his being screams “I am so wasted”.
What Affleck does get right – and presumably he’s the one getting it right because the script doesn’t call for it – is a vague sense of explosive menace. Being around a drunk isn’t a whole lot of fun because you’re never quite sure what’s going to set them off, or exactly how they’re going to respond to being set off. There’s a moment early on where Affleck slaps a beer car across the room and nobody really bats an eye, but it’s pretty much the only moment where his boozing feels really felt (obviously he can’t really be a dangerous drunk because this is a movie about his coaching teenagers; nobody’s going to stick around once he starts slapping the kids).
So while the big selling point here is “hey, Affleck’s acting out his real life”, that’s not really what we’re getting. Affleck’s back on the wagon now and was during this film, while his character is hitting the bottle for close to the entire run time. What we’re getting here is Affleck’s memories of being a drunk; if this is any real guide it’s pretty clear he wasn’t having a fun time.
Hopefully, he had a plucky bunch of thinly sketched basketball-loving teens to inspire him to get off the booze too.
Written by Anthony Morris