It’s unfair but probably inevitable that most people will apply the title of Ben Affleck’s new movie, “The Way Back,” to the actor himself. Possibly a lot of the plot line, too. Affleck’s public persona has had so many switchbacks over the years, from Boston boy made good to cocky leading man to smug pop culture joke to respected award-winning director to tattooed tabloid fixture — Rehab Ben — to bummed-out Batman to social media meme Sad Ben, which is where we are now. “The Way Back” is the first real Sad Ben film.
It’s earnest and old-fashioned and sturdily made, and I wish that were enough to make it good. “The Way Back” is a high school basketball movie with a side of addiction drama, and you’re forgiven if you watch the trailers and think you’ll be getting a remake of the 1986 hoops classic “Hoosiers.” This is not that movie. This is a movie for people who’ve never seen a basketball film before.
Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a high school court star whose life has come undone in middle age. A construction worker who’s unhappily separated from wife Angela (Janina Gavankar), he’s wallowing in an alcoholic rut: beer for breakfast, vodka in his lunch pail thermos, nights at the corner bar until someone walks him home. The actor plays this with the bleak low-key observational details of a fellow traveler: Puffy, self-pitying, and mean, this is Sad Jack.
Will he set foot on the road to redemption when Father Devine (John Aylward) asks him to coach the basketball team of Jack’s alma mater, Bishop Hayes High? Will the squad of screw-ups turn it around and start winning? Goodness, what do you think? As written by Brad Inglesby and directed by Gavin O’Connor — he made the certifiably nuts 2016 autistic-hit-man movie “The Accountant” with Affleck — “The Way Back” makes every single stop on the stations of this genre’s cross.
There’s the montage that intercuts the coach’s exhortations with the game by game improvement of the team’s record. There’s the cocky player who has to be humbled (Melvin Gregg), the squad Romeo (Will Ropp), the quiet team superstar (Brandon Wilson) from a poor home with a dad who hates basketball. There’s the Big Game. And there is climactic slow-motion. Oh Lord, is there climactic slow-motion.
But there are compensations, too. The on-court action is filmed crisply and excitingly. Al Madrigal creates something fresh as Jack’s nerdy assistant coach, and Jeremy Radin is amusingly long-suffering as a priest who tries and fails to get Jack to cut back on the F-bombs on and off the court. There are precisely two women in the movie, Gavankar and Michaela Watkins as the hero’s sister, and their primary job is to look on fretfully, which they do well.
“The Way Back” is oddly shaped, though, building toward the climax of that Big Game and milking the suspense for all it’s worth before rolling on for another half hour of relapse, setback, and qualified triumph. The movie feels seriously overlong, yet the clear-eyed depiction of alcoholism and the damage it wreaks goes some way toward earning one’s respect (as does the lumpy left turn of the final act, in its way). Still, did the screenwriters really have to “explain” Jack’s addiction by revealing a family tragedy midway through the film? The gambit plays like piling it on just to yank our heartstrings and, anyway, Affleck plays the character’s self-loathing as a thing in itself. Regardless of what you think you know about the actor’s off-screen life, he gives a better performance than the movie deserves.
Can a film be a compendium of clichés and still feel emotionally honest? “The Way Back” is a test case and, aside from the commitment shown by its cast, the answer is, sorry, no. But as a way back for the movie’s star, it’s a start.
THE WAY BACK
Directed by Gavin O’Connor. Written by Brad Inglesby. Starring Ben Affleck, Janina Gavankar, Al Madrigal, Brandon Wilson, Michaela Watkins. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 108 minutes. R (language throughout, including sexual references)