The Way Back

The Way Back ★★★

This movie never fully decides whether its a basketball movie or a searing character study, to its detriment. Neither the personal drama around Ben Affleck's Jack, an alcoholic suffering through a tragedy, nor the dynamics of the team he begins coaching and works to turn around, feel fully formed, with the film ping-ponging between those storylines, and its attention to one flagging whenever it focuses on the other.

Functionally, the first and third act here are about Affleck, his alcoholism, and his efforts to crawl his way back to normalcy, while the middle act is about the basketball season for the team he begins coaching. The latter movie, about a troubled and emotionally volatile former high school basketball star leading his old team back towards greatness, is frequently excellent, the stuff of a classic under-dog sports story that, if it never escapes the cliches of that genre, at least executes them well. The Affleck stuff is a lot less effective for me (though he is very good throughout the film), with his issues seeming so deeply situational and so cleanly resolvable that much of the tension is sapped from his story as a result. The movie seems to forget, for the most part, that Affleck is a crippling maintenance drinker during the middle portion where it focuses on him as a coach, undercutting the return of these issues in the film's final act.

I can see why the recovering Affleck was drawn to this material, and what we get here is really half of one great movie and half of one pretty good movie. Either of them could probably have been made into something better than what we are left with here, but the movie still has its share of moments, and the basketball scenes are never less than thrilling.