Ben Affleck is sad. Glum. Gloomy. Morose. Despondent. Blue.
He brings all those emotional shadings to his portrayal of Jack Cunningham, the lead character in “The Way Back.”
Cunningham is an alcoholic whose disease has cost him his marriage and reduced him to a precarious existence as a steelworker living in a rundown neighborhood in San Pedro, California. His refrigerator is stuffed with beer cans, the thermos he takes to work is filled with vodka and his evenings are spent in a dive bar.
A chance at redemption comes his way when the principal of the Catholic high school where he was a star basketball player in the ’90s approaches him with the offer of a job coaching the school’s hoops team. They’re a group of low-achieving jocks who are the doormat of their conference.
He’s long been away from the game and has never coached in his life, so can he whip these losers into shape and make them contenders? Can he straighten out his life in the process?
The title suggests the outcome.
Yes, it’s “Rocky” redux as underdogs will rise yet again.
Screenwriter Brad Ingelsby and director Gavin O’Connor bring nothing new to the well-worn formula. The players are not well-defined, the game sequences are choppily constructed. And to up the ante in terms of sentimentality, fatal illnesses are stirred into the mix. Tears will be shed.
Clichéd as it is, “The Way Back” is not a mawkish picture. Rather, it’s notable for the quiet dignity that O’Connor and Affleck bring to the proceedings. The two previously worked together on the excellent “The Accountant,” a thriller in which Affleck played another privately anguished character. And O’Connor also knows his way around a sports movie, having directed the 2004 hit “Miracle,” about the U.S. hockey teams’ stunning upset victory over the Russians in the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid, and also 2010’s “Warrior,” set in the world of mixed martial arts.
A spirit of dark sorrow hangs over much of the movie, as Cunningham grapples with his alcoholism while trying to motivate the kids on his team to respect the game and, in the process, themselves.
Affleck, who has struggled in real life with alcoholism and has been in and out of rehab on a number of occasions over the years, makes his character’s pain palpable and totally believable.
★★½ “The Way Back,” with Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins, Janina Gavankar, Glynn Turman, Brandon Wilson. Directed by Gavin O’Connor, from a screenplay by Brad Ingelsby. 108 minutes. Rated R for language throughout including some sexual references. Opens March 6 at multiple theaters.