The Way pretends to be Neapolitan ice cream when it’s actually just vanilla
Dir. Emilio Estevez
Starring: Emilio Estevez, Martin Sheen, Yorick van Wagenigen
There was a time when Martin Sheen was notable for something other than having a batshit crazy son. Martin Sheen used to be a highly-respected actor, known far and wide for his breadth of acting abilities. He was in Apocalypse Now, man! Lately, though, he’s been winding down his career, mostly by starring in another marginally famous son’s directorial projects. The Way is one of such projects.
The Way is directed by and co-stars Emilio Estevez, who is better known for his role in The Mighty Ducks franchise than he is for his directorial chops. Estevez plays Daniel, the son of Martin Sheen’s Tom. Yes, real-life father and son are playing on-screen father and son for the third time. I guess it beats the hell out of trying to find actors who could pass for immediate family.
Tom is a no-nonsense doctor who travels from Smalltown, USA, to St. Jean Pied de Port, France, to collect the remains of his son, Daniel. Daniel died while on a trek through the Pyrenees Mountains. Daniel was walking the historic El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Rather than return to his relatively safe lifestyle, Tom decides to finish the pilgrimage because he figures lightning can’t possibly strike the same place twice.
Being a doctor and all, you would expect Tom to be smarter than to embark on the same trip that killed his son, especially when he doesn’t have very much time for weekend expeditions. Very early on in the pilgrimage, Tom realizes he’s boned six ways from Sunday. Cue the quirky, ethnic supporting cast! Joining Tom in his poorly-thought-out quest is a Dutch traveler, a Canadian traveler, and an Irish writer acted superbly by Yorick van Wageningen, Deborah Kara Unger, and James Nesbitt, respectively. Together, the ensemble quartet travels the same pilgrimage. They all engage in some unlikely shenanigans, discover what life means to them while simultaneously realizing their smallness in the grand scheme of things, and they all help Tom come to terms with his unresolved relationship with his son.
Abandon all notions of freshness, ye who enter this film. What is disguised as a fresh take on the road-trip genre is just a contrived retelling of the “commemorating a family member by taking part in their crazy schemes” plot. There’s nothing wrong with that in the context of the film, and by no means is The Way bad –it’s just so stable. This film does not take a single risk in anything it attempts. Every action, thought, word, and deed has already become an almost-canonical storytelling convention for the genre.
Perhaps I’ve come to expect too much from conventional storytelling. Maybe a week-long bender on the latest experimental titles will make me appreciate vanilla films like The Way more than I do. But since that’s never going to happen, I feel I should not have to compromise my impossibly high standards. The Way isn’t a bad film, but it compromises what charm it could have had just by tackling tired material in an unoriginal way.