In this issue, Robert Hammerle reviews “The Way Way Back” and also remembers C. Joseph Russell, an Indianapolis attorney who died July 17.
The Way Way Back
As I contemplated the recent tragic death of our dear friend Joe Russell, I needed a movie that championed the human spirit. “The Way Way Back” is that film.
First of all, be prepared to cry, because I surely did. No, there are no deaths or tragic illnesses, but only an examination of life through the eyes of Duncan, a 14-year-old boy. Played here by Liam James, you see him wrestle with life as his divorced mother embraces a tarnished soul that he justifiably can’t stand.
This is an emotionally evocative film that is utterly magical on multiple levels. Young Duncan accompanies his mother, her paramour and his daughter to his summer lake home. As always, Toni Collette shines as a woman desperately trying to rationalize finding love in all the wrong places. Steve Carell, playing against image, is a first-class bastard who treats young Duncan as little more than a degraded manservant.
However, the movie explodes with both venom and hilarity once our twisted family gets to the lake. Allison Janney plays an outrageously boozy next-door-neighbor, a divorced mother of two who consistently embarrasses her young son because of his amblyopic right eye. I suffer from that affliction, and I wanted to slap her.
AnnaSophia Robb plays Ms. Janney’s daughter, a young girl who hates the lake as much as Duncan does. They form a friendship and are forced to watch their parents consistently act as if they are on some type of an adult spring break.
But what makes “The Way Way Back” erupt with utter comic delight is the appearance of Sam Rockwell as an employee of a nearby water park. He is as offbeat as he is without pretense, and his hysterical assault on the world entertains everyone but his good-natured girlfriend, here played by the polite and lovely Maya Rudolph.
As Duncan tries to escape from his depressing vacation home, he begins to secretly work at the water park under Mr. Rockwell’s direction. In the process, he finds both meaning and inspiration, and there are episodes that will charm even you hard cynics.
I have always loved Toni Collette. Despite being wounded by a failed marriage, what her character sees in Carell’s character is hard to understand.
Let me simply say that Mr. Rockwell’s performance as Owen is classic, and it deserves to be remembered at Oscar time. He may appear to be socially demented, but he has a heart of gold that helps Duncan find some missing self-respect.
In addition, Mr. Rockwell is dancing on the edge of greatness. See his outrageous performance in last year’s “Seven Psychopaths,” and then go watch him play the unapologetic Victor Mancini in “Choke” (2008), a man who embraces masturbation as a full-time job.
By the end of the film, I was overwhelmed with a sense of passionate joy. Because of Mr. Rockwell’s Owen, young Duncan and his mother were able to rediscover each other. Joe Russell would have loved this movie.
A tribute to Joe Russell
While I referred to his tragic death in my review of “The Way Way Back,” allow me to spend a few minutes talking about our beloved friend and colleague Joe Russell. You need to understand why I miss him.
While we all hope that his beloved wife, Betsy, can find a bit of sanctuary as time passes, she had the good fortune to be married to a man who was one of the funniest human beings I’ve ever met. I worked on a number of difficult cases with him over the years, but no conversation ended without both of us laughing hysterically.
As an example, permit me to describe an incident that took place in the old Hilton Hotel located in downtown Indianapolis four years ago. I had just met with a young woman and her parents the evening before her first federal court hearing in a matter involving a huge fraud conspiracy out of New York. Without saying more, my client was psychologically shot. No matter what I said, she collapsed in tears, and I finally had to leave her under the watchful eye of her anguished mother.
As I exited the elevator, I walked through the hotel lobby near what was then a small bar. At that moment, an attractive woman aggressively approached me, grabbed me by the arm, and said, “Bob, why won’t you admit that you are the father of our child?”
After looking at her in shock, I mumbled, “What?” She aggressively responded, “Don’t try to pull that nonsense again on me. If you have an ounce of integrity left in you, you will simply admit the truth and quit escaping responsibility for our child.”
Frantically looking at her, I grabbed her by the arm and walked off into a corner saying, “Who are you?” She yelled back quickly, “Don’t pull that crap on me, Hammerle. You may have an honorable reputation, but if you want to keep it, now is the time to quit running from your past.”
As I stared at her, I heard some noise coming from the bar. Looking over my shoulder, I saw Joe and his colleagues laughing hysterically. It seems they were having a small office get together, and he sent his secretary over to me to trap me into this God-awful prank.
As Joe was fighting to catch his breath, I came up to him and yelled, “Order me whatever you’re drinking!” I then leaned over to him and whispered, “The tragedy is, you sorry SOB, for a moment I was left wondering if this really had happened!”
I should also note that Joe and I always enjoyed trying to outdo the other with proposed inscriptions on our tombstones. In that regard, we both loved the Dos Equis TV commercial where the debonair man with the gray beard eloquently finishes with the classic saying, “Stay thirsty, my friend.”
Well, Joe, I’ll stay thirsty, and I’ll do it in your honor.•
Robert Hammerle practices criminal law in Indianapolis. To read more of his reviews, visit www.bigmouthbobs.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.