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Ben Affleck's Performance in 'The Way Back' Rhymes With His Real Life

He plays an alcoholic coach who finds redemption in this uplifting, underdog sports drama

spinner image Ben Affleck stars as Jack Cunningham in the film The Way Back
Richard Foreman/Warner Bros. Entertainment

Rating: R

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Run time: 1 hour 48 minutes

Stars: Ben Affleck, Janina Gavankar, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins

Director: Gavin O'Connor

The Way Back might as well be called “The Throwback.” It's the continuation of a genre — the uplifting, underdog sports drama — that stretches back to at least 1976's Rocky, if not 1940's Knute Rockne, All American. It's part of a recent subgenre, the basketball-coach redemption saga, like Glory Road, Coach Carter, and Hoosiers. So yes, it's formulaic and derivative. But it's also undeniably effective.

Batman's suit never quite seemed to fit Ben Affleck, 47, but The Way Back provides him with a tailor-made role, and he delivers the performance of a lifetime in a story that rhymes with his real life. He's adeptly cast as Jack Cunningham, an alcoholic who has screwed up his marriage and is seeking a second shot to put his life back together. He's the kind of guy who stops by a local dive bar every night after work to drink himself into oblivion, then takes a beer can into the shower the next morning. It's impossible not to flash on Affleck's public battles with substance abuse and painful split from his ex-wife, Jennifer Garner, 47. These real-life resonances bring verisimilitude and depth to a story that might otherwise seem manufactured.

Jack's potential ticket to salvation comes in the form of an offer to coach the seemingly hopeless basketball team at the Catholic high school where he was a hoops phenom 25 years earlier. The players are allowed only one personality trait each: the fast-talking ladies’ man, the soft-spoken team captain, the chubby class clown, etc. Jack's estranged wife, played by The Morning Show's Janina Gavankar, is also sketchily drawn, and a third-act reveal about what drove him to drink is shamelessly manipulative. But the film benefits from the casting of two actors best known for comedy — Saturday Night Live's Michaela Watkins and The Daily Show's Al Madrigal, both 48 — who add verve to their parts as Jack's passive-aggressive sister and his nebbishy assistant coach.

Director Gavin O'Connor, who last collaborated with Affleck on the ludicrous, enjoyable 2016 action flick The Accountant, channels the rousing spirit of his 2011 mixed martial arts sleeper Warrior. He's ably aided by the gritty cinematography of Eduard Grau (Boy Erased), brisk editing of David Rosenbloom (Friday Night Lights), and moody score by Rob Simonsen (Foxcatcher).

Does The Way Back telegraph its passes? Of course it does. There's barely a single plot twist that you won't see coming from half court. But that's part of the pleasure of a movie like this. It's cinematic comfort food solidly crafted by skilled professionals. And the fact that Affleck can elevate this material to genuine poignance — well, that's a more impressively superheroic feat than anything he ever pulled off with the Justice League.

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