Water Worlds Apart

One of these movies is way, way better than the other

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Way Way Back

The Way, Way Back
Coming Soon
3.5 out of 5

The Way, Way Back and The To Do List aren’t as similar as kidnap-the-president flicks Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down are, but they definitely have a common subject: teenagers struggling to meet the milestones that their peers seem to breeze past.

Of the two, only The Way, Way Back manages to get some emotional traction.

The teen in question in The Way, Way Back is Duncan (Liam James, The Killing), an awkward, introverted 14-year-old. Forced by his would-be stepfather (Steve Carell) to go on a family vacation, Duncan finds himself adrift in a beach town, at the mercy of unpleasant adults behaving like they’re on spring break. One of the few decent grown-ups (Sam Rockwell) takes pity on the kid and hires him to do menial tasks at the local water park. Even though he’s just a lowly employee at the place, Duncan begins to build self-confidence — which will come in handy when it comes to confronting the sleazebag who’s dating his mother.

The Oscar-winning writing team behind The Descendants, Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, take on directorial duties as well with The Way, Way Back. They’re a tad out of their depth (the film isn’t nearly as cutting as it could have been), but Rash and Faxon have misfit cred. They also squeeze good performances out of all involved — especially Carell, who finally shakes his befuddled persona with an excellent turn as a bully who fancies himself a father figure.

The To Do List
Galaxy (opens Friday 26)
1.5 out of 5

The To Do List also features a strong cast, but doesn’t do much with it. High school graduate Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza, Parks and Recreation) has attained every honour that senior year has to offer, but her academic focus has caused her to miss certain rites of passage — like finding a boyfriend and losing her virginity. Fearful her sexual naiveté may interfere with her college experience, Brandy sets out to cover the basics over the summer — approaching it like it was homework, blissfully unaware of the effects this may have on her circle of friends. Because that makes a lot of sense.

The biggest problem with The To Do List (besides being set in the ’90s just to score cheap nostalgia points, and the fact that the actors are far too old for their “teen” roles — Plaza is 29, for gawd’s sake) is that Plaza is a one-trick pony. Her shtick works for sitcoms and supporting roles, but when you’re supposed to be carrying a movie you need to show some range — and she doesn’t.

Just as in The Way, Way Back, the voice of reason comes from an irresponsible water park manager, played by Bill Hader in this case. Hader is definitely amusing, but for a raunchy comedy The To Do List is pretty light in the laugh department.

Nobody in this film resembles a real person — they’re just vague caricatures defined by the role of sex in their lives. Somewhere in this reverse American Pie there’s a novel idea, but any good intentions that might exist here crash and burn against the filmmaker’s lack of ingenuity. (Having someone eating feces doesn’t strike me as a sophisticated form of comedy.)

Two films with similar plotlines. One clear winner.