Ben affleck the way back alcoholism

Ben Affleck tackles his demons head-on in The Way Back

Affleck’s character, a troubled alcoholic who takes on coaching a high school basketball team, mirrors the star’s own struggles with alcoholism.

There’s a pretty big contradiction at the heart of The Way Back. It’s one that builds on tabloid-rag positioning in a way that should not, usually, affect our opinion of the film. The contradiction is as follows: The Way Back is the most personal film that Ben Affleck is likely to ever make, and it is also a film whose broad strokes are so insanely generic that nearly any male actor in his 40s could be in it and the film would not be significantly different. It’s impossible to see The Way Back without looking through the lens of the personal life of Ben Affleck and his very public struggles with alcoholism. It’s also impossible to watch The Way Back and not essentially see a grimmer version of The Mighty Ducks.

Few movie stars have had such public struggles with addiction. Even at the time that Ben Affleck became a star, being an affable drunk who goes on late-night talk shows soused remained an acceptable star persona. Many stars of Affleck’s calibre have gone public with their addiction struggles, but these happened outside of the limelight. Ben Affleck had gossip magazines discussing his divorce and paparazzi taking pictures of him receiving crates of booze at home when he was ostensibly on the wagon.

None of this matters, in the absolute; you don’t need to have had an acrimonious divorce to be in Marriage Story and so on and such forth. But I’d be lying if I said that everything we know about Ben Affleck doesn’t come and colour The Way Back. It’s a vehicle in the most traditional sense: a film with an impossibly generic premise that has been sculpted and whittled into a Ben Affleck movie.

Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) is a former star basketball player who now lives a life of solitude, working construction and living alone in a dilapidated apartment where he drinks himself to sleep every night. Jack isn’t a dramatic drunk, but he’s not a particularly happy one, either. He seems to be happy to wile away the days away from his ex-wife (Janina Gavankar) or his concerned sister (Michaela Watkins). There’s something eating away at Jack — a bigger reason why he just sits at his kitchen table downing crispy boys until he falls asleep — but the viewer doesn’t find out about it until well after he accepts an offer from his old alma mater to step in for the basketball coach who just had a heart attack.

Jack is reticent at first (he has “a lot going on,” by which he mainly means drinking alone) but he accepts the position regardless. Working alongside the team (which is refreshingly not really made up of loveable cut-ups in the Bad News Bears mold but of decent kids who actually want to play basketball) starts to give him a reason to turn his life around.

The Way Back is absolutely along the same lines as inspirational teacher movies like Dead Poets Society or Dangerous Minds or Coach Carter; while Affleck never utters the line, “I like to think these kids are actually coaching me,” it wouldn’t be out of place. Where The Way Back differs is in its dosage. The performance of Ben Affleck, for one, never once dips into the Oscar reel histrionics that other actors portraying alcoholics have indulged in. His alcoholism is more of a bloated ethylic malaise, a retreat into himself that’s aided by cans of cheap beer that he keeps at arm’s length at all times. The fact that Jack remains at a fairly even keel throughout also means the film doesn’t really veer into melodrama. It’s a fairly dour watch (though watching a hungover Affleck scream obscenities to teenagers under the disapproving eye of the school deacon is very satisfying) but not one prone to flights of fancy.

Granted, things get significantly heavier about an hour in when the film reveals exactly why Jack’s life is in such a tailspin. I won’t reveal it here, but it does nudge the film into the realm of Hollywood melodrama in a way that feels somewhat more contrived. Maybe it’s just me, but it’s enough in my book that Jack Cunningham is an alcoholic because he never quite measured up to the promise he once had and that he’s “content” coasting through life. It makes the second half of the movie less of a grounded meditation and more of a capital-w Weepie, though even that is well-handled by director Gavin O’Connor. In the same way that Jack’s alcoholism is treated somewhat even-handedly, the sports stuff is given exactly the right amount of gravitas; it becomes less about winning the season and saving these kids and more about getting through it for everyone involved.

Like all successful vehicles, however, The Way Back is chiefly about its star. Affleck has rarely been better; roles where he’s had to be broody or internal have often been his Achilles heel, but there’s a defeated, lived-in quality to his performance here that’s rarely been seen in his work. It’s a deceptively physical performance, too, as Jack seems entirely uncomfortable and burdened by his body, forever trying to shrink away even if he’s a head taller than everyone else he interacts with. Miraculously, The Way Back is practically devoid of preaching. It’s more a film about alcoholism than about recovery, and thus it avoids being what it actually looks like: a self-actualized victory lap of Affleck’s recovery, an unofficial 13th AA step with a $50-million price-tag. Though it isn’t very original, The Way Back is inarguably effective. ■

The Way Back opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, March 6. Watch the trailer below.

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Ben Affleck tackles alcoholism head-on in The Way Back