Ben Affleck plays a version of himself in Gavin O'Connor's The Way Back, though the fictional Jack Cunningham is no actor. The alcoholic construction worker is far removed from his years as a high school basketball star when he's asked to coach his old team, in a struggle of its own at the bottom of the league. Four takes from critics, who give the redemption story a 86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes:
- "There are moments … when it's impossible to know where the character of Jack Cunningham ends and Affleck begins," writes Mara Reinstein at US Weekly. "When he smacks a beer bottle across the room out of frustration, his action comes off as an instinctive reflex." But Reinstein found the film "otherwise forgettable" and far too predictable. "The fiery motivational speech? The neglectful parent? The hot-headed player? … Check, check, check."
- G. Allen Johnson disagrees. "If Affleck's career-rescuing performance was the only thing to recommend in The Way Back, that would be enough," he writes at the San Francisco Chronicle. But there's also the "very believable" relationship Cunningham has with his estranged wife and the accurate portrayal of addiction as "layered and complex," he writes. In fact, the film "feels authentic all the way around."
- Joined by a "fine cast," Affleck "owns the role," playing it "with the subtlety of a character actor and the coiled ferocity of the star he has always been," writes Joe Morgenstern at the Wall Street Journal, who also liked the film overall. In spite of a few minor faults—at times, it "turns formulaic, or clumsily didactic"—it's "beautifully crafted, a sequence of events, many of them stirring, along a road to redemption," he writes.
- Johnny Oleksinski also has high praise for Affleck, arguing he's "every bit as good in this as his Oscar-winning brother Casey was in Manchester by the Sea." He "really makes the case for his own artistic relevance" while going "to some emotionally tortured places," he writes at the New York Post. The result is a character who's "instantly relatable and honest, even when he's just sitting quietly in his car."
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