By: Kevin Jordan
Yellow-bellied and lily-livered.
The last time I played organized basketball, I was a sophomore in high school. Our team sucked. We finished the season 1-11, mostly due to the fact that we were playing against teams featuring kids who could dunk (we could not), but also the fact that our coach was an idiot. He seemed to believe that substitutions were pointless, leading to a starting five who were gassed well before halftime. Plus, that one win happened the one time when that coach was out of town. Want to guess how much subbing happened that game (it also helped that they were the only other team in the league without any kids capable of dunking)? The Way Back reminded me a lot of that season, making me think that maybe we, too, could have been state champions if only an alcoholic, former high school star could have coached us.
(SPOILER ALERT – I am going to ruin a lot of this movie for you to explain how much of a chickenshit was this film.)
Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) was a high school basketball phenom. Now, he is a forty-year old, alcoholic construction worker, separated from his wife, and still living in his home town. Everyone in town knows who he is and everyone in town knows he is a drunk. One night, he hears a voice mail from his old high school that the head priest would like to talk to him. He goes to the meeting and is offered the head coaching position of the basketball team (it is mid-season) because the previous coach had a heart attack. Somehow, the priest is unaware that Jack is a drunk, evidenced by the priest not mentioning it during their conversation. A completely irresponsible priest was the first clue that something was wrong with this movie.
Jack does not want the job, but, like all Catholics, the priest guilts Jack into thinking it over for the night. Jack goes home and starts plowing his way through a 24-pack of beer, running through various amalgamations of turning down the offer. He eventually passes out, wakes up the next morning, and decides to take the job. Because all good decisions are made on a hangover.
When Jack arrives at the school, he is greeted by the assistant coach, Dan (Al Madrigal), and introduced to the team. Like all sports movies, we get a quick summary of the one thing that each player does well, which will probably come in handy in the eventual climactic game. The first couple of games do not go well, Jack does far more cussing than coaching. During one bus ride, Father Whelan (Jeremy Radin), reminds Jack that they do not allow cussing, and Jack retorts with “With all of the terrible things happening around the world, do you really think God gives a shit that I’m cursing around these boys?” To which Father Whelan replies “Yes. I do think God gives a shit.” I was intrigued by this exchange because it implied that Jack had lost his faith, which was probably the same reason he was a drunk.
After another demoralizing loss, Jack gives one of the kids – Brandon (Brandon Wilson) – a ride home. They chat for a bit and we learn that Brandon is getting scholarship offers to play college basketball, but hasn’t been telling his dad because his dad does not want him to put his hopes in basketball. This is later confirmed by the dad himself, which makes no sense in any context. It’s not like Brandon is hoping to get a scholarship to play ball; he already has them. Yet, his dad does not want him to go to college for free? Huh? This was the second clue that this movie was not well thought-out.
We also learn during the chat with Brandon that Jack had a full scholarship to Kansas, but turned it down because Jack’s dad only showed Jack love when Jack excelled at basketball. Like with the cussing conversation with Father Whelan, this bit of information seems like it will be woven into Jack’s relationship with Brandon, so we keep watching this movie. After Jack drops off Brandon, he heads to the bar, but decides not to go in (there was also an exchange with Dan about Dan finding beer cans in the coach’s office). The combination of Jack stopping drinking (presumably) and the conversation with Brandon leads to the team turning things around. They start winning, leading to a showdown with the best team in the state. This leads to the biggest clue that this film was just not good – the big game.
I will not spoil the game for you, but it ends at the 75-minute mark of a 108-minute film. Uh, what? A few minutes prior to this, we learn why Jack was a drunk. His son died of cancer two years earlier at age seven. Yeah, you would drink and moon God, too, if that was your life. Shortly after the big game, he gets a call from his estranged wife (Janina Gavankar) that their best friend’s son is in the hospital, also with cancer (we are left to assume this is how Jack knows the family). They visit the hospital and Jack loses it, fleeing and heading directly to the bar. Not only does he fall off the wagon, he falls off multiple wagons. This causes him to be late to practice the next day and he shows up reeking of booze. Dan and the good priest confront him later that day and Jack is fired on the spot. Jack goes back to the bar, lather, rinse, repeat, drunk-driving accident, accidental break-in, beating, hospital, rehab, the end.
As you can see, this film is not a redemption story, despite all of its marketing trying to trick you into thinking it is. It worked on me. I thought it was going to be Hoosiers: Now Featuring Cell Phones. I have never seen a movie bring up so many topics, then run away from them in terror. Dealing with childhood cancer, alcoholism, losing one’s faith, alienating your family, dad issues – all are given lip service and all could have easily been threaded together to form a powerful story of a man confronting his demons. At no point during this entire film does any character attempt to talk to Jack about his loss, let alone prod him to deal with it. Not even his sister (Michaela Watkins), who can only manage to make mildly snide comments and disapproving glances.
When the movie was over, I tried to think of what it was trying to tell us, but nothing is there. It wants you to believe in redemption, except it blows that wad before the third act. It wants you to think it’s about making people better, except it isn’t even interested in making its own main character better. It wants to say something about alcoholism, but can only manage to say the most obvious thing – alcoholics tend to be very self-destructive. A cynic might say it’s nothing more than a human story; that humans are flawed and weak and will inevitably fail everyone around them. That may be true, but that’s a shitty message for a sports movie (or any movie, really). Any way you look at it, this film fails to tell a compelling story, hiding in the shadows from its own topics, while simultaneously depressing the shit out of the viewer. In other words, chickenshit.
Rating: Ask for all but one dollar back and try not to dwell on your own terrible childhood coaches.