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'The Way Back': Hoosiers, Too
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
06:39PM / Thursday, March 12, 2020
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Occasionally, especially in unstable times, a predictable movie like Gavin O'Connor's "The Way Back," about a former basketball phenom on the skids who seeks grace by coaching the ragtag team at his alma mater, instills a salubrious sense of order, albeit for only 108 minutes.
 
Truth be told, I never really liked the idea of entertainment as diversion from one's troubles, but rather preferred that my amusements be the cherry on top of a life relatively free of any truly serious adversities. Oh, that it would always be the case.
 
Still, referring to yet another category of use, entertainment's ability to render instructive wisdom, as is dramatically exampled in "Sullivan's Travels" (1941) when Joel McCrea's famous director, mistakenly placed on a chain gang, sees the importance of comedy, isn't lost on me.
 
Hence, while the jaded moviegoer may have witnessed ad nauseum the pop psychology dispensed in "The Way Back" as Ben Affleck's Jack Cunningham looks to find purpose and meaning, we are nonetheless reminded that intelligent lessons are worth repeating.
 
In short, "The Way Back's" reaffirmation of principles in the interest of preserving the human spirit earns it a pass. But be certain that Mr. O'Connor, aware of the unavoidable comparisons to dozens of other movies detailing the comeback attempt of a likeable lost soul, a la "Hoosiers" (1986), installs some variations on the theme, right down to the so-called realistic ending.
 
However, while he applies some medium grain sandpaper to the sharper edges of typicality, he wisely leaves us a pleasing modicum of pie-in-the sky idealism for which to cheer enthusiastically. Jack is us; we are Jack, the human being hoping for some sign or flash of magic to pave the way to greater meaning, understanding, a positive sense of self-worth, or, in the very least, offer some merciful peace of mind.
 
It occurs that I tipped a glass of brew with many a Jack in my drinking days, which coincided with my poetic period, was preceded by college and followed in the late '60s and early '70s by my attempts to save the world. Jack was the guy at the end of the bar who, venerated by his barfly confederates for a sports record that perhaps still stood, endlessly replayed both mentally and audibly that last game. It would be sacrilege if he were allowed to pay for his own drinks, a function of due reverence and, I think secretly, a superstitious warding off of a similar fate, the silent, implied invocation being, 'There but for the grace of G-d … ."
 
The acceptable if probably quixotic conceit in this old bromide of a plot is that if dispirited Jack is a champion in the true sense, he'll win that most important game of all.
 
Affleck, in a decent performance that boasts a couple stellar moments, like when at a pivotal moment in a game he feverishly calls a player back to the sideline to emphasize the tactic, wins our support, even before a scattered exposition of his woes charitably pleads his case. Figure on the usual suspects to have derailed him, including a sports dad bereft of parenting skills and the sort of game-changing, personal catastrophe so dreadful even in fiction that Brad Ingelsby's script deems it wise to release its details piecemeal. The coup de grace is Jack's estrangement from his wife, Angela (Javina Gavankar), assumedly caused by said devastation.
 
Of course, our interest is stirred by the hope that this downtrodden mortal, perhaps through the metaphor of coaching a high school basketball team whose lack of promise mirrors his own despondency, will rejoin the human race. But as any blues singer worth his sorrow can tell you, the misery, when it's this deeply embedded, ain't so easy to chase away, brother. And so, on first blush that which attempts to pass for a basketball squad is hardly a welcome sight for the binge
drinking protagonist's bloodshot eyes.
 
Insofar as the sports story itself, expect a hardly brushed off cliché featuring the brazen showboat star who will immediately challenge Jack's authority, balanced by the shy, diamond-in-the-rough kid just waiting for someone to come along and mine his full potential. Similarly textbook, the hoop action itself is made up of the same old boiler plate stratagems that have been the modus operandi of all underdog teams since Mr. Naismith's game was first dramatized on
film.
 
All the same, I bought in, readily exchanging any sense of being manipulated for a welcome attempt to share a sympathetic understanding of the human condition. Optimistic? Like chicken soup for a cold, it couldn't hurt. And considering what we've been through these past three years, topped off by this latest, worldwide challenge to our well-being, a film espousing the achievability of finding "The Way Back" is just what the doctor ordered.
 
"The Way Back," rated R, is a Warner Bros. release directed by Gavin O'Connor and stars Ben Affleck, Janina Gavankar and Brandon Wilson. Running time: 108 minutes
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