“The Way Back” turns out to be the perfect way back on-screen for Ben Affleck.
Although the 47-year-old has continued to make films in the past few years (“Triple Frontier,” “Justice League”), they’ve been tailor-made for the bargain bin. “The Last Thing He Wanted,” co-starring Anne Hathaway, is already a front-runner for the worst film of 2020.
But as an alcoholic construction worker who finds renewed life purpose in “The Way Back,” Affleck reminds us that he’s the rare A-list actor who, when tackling a tormented average Joe role, doesn’t showboat for glory or awards. He’s instantly relatable and honest, even when he’s just sitting quietly in his car.
So it’s painful to watch him here as Jack, a scruffy, dead-eyed dude who takes a beer can into the bathroom with him every morning and guzzles it while he shampoos. Then, in the car, he pours booze into a coffee mug to chug at his dangerous job, and after work gets obliterated at his favorite bar.
As Jack’s life slowly disintegrates, God — in the person of the pastor of his old high school — intervenes. He calls Jack into his office at Bishop Hayes HS to talk about the basketball team. “We need a new coach, Jack,” he says. “You’re the first person I thought of.”
Jack, it turns out, was the finest ballplayer the school had ever seen and has stayed something of a legend in the ensuing years. Admittedly, it strains credulity a bit that so many people would remember a high school MVP from 1994 when they probably don’t even know their best friend’s phone number, but you get over that quickly.
After pounding down a fridge-full of beer, Jack decides to take the gig. The team, he discovers, is in shambles. There’s plenty of raw talent, but no discipline or strategy. The boys fixate on girls and celebrate before they’ve even won, which is rare. Jack uses both his leadership skills and brash style — “s–t”s and “f–k”s for days! — to get them back on track.
Here’s what’s smart about director Gavin O’Connor’s film: Although a lot of movies about addiction fixate on the agonizing and physically punishing withdrawal process, this one doesn’t. We don’t see Jack take another drink for a solid 30 minutes as the team drives from school to school, gradually improving with each game. Along the way, we learn about the tragedy that led to the breakdown of Jack’s marriage and his eventual dependency on alcohol — a journey that takes Affleck to some emotionally tortured places.
But his team is a hoot. There’s Brandon (Brandon Wilson), the latent genius held back by a protective dad; Kenny (Will Ropp), the ladies’ man; and Chubbs (Charles Lott Jr.), the jokester. They’re familiar characters in a well-worn plot, but, given Jack’s home life, they’re unusually poignant.
It’s Affleck, however, who really makes the case for his own artistic relevance. Had this been a more poetic and better-written film, his performance might’ve gotten him an award or two. He’s every bit as good in this as his Oscar-winning brother Casey was in “Manchester by the Sea.”