‘The Way Back’: Sobering hoops story far from slam dunk

2 out of 4 stars

Ben Affleck’s life on the screen – where he’s played everyone from Jack Ryan to Batman and bank robber to a World War II fighter pilot, has been well documented, as have his Oscars for his work on “Good Will Hunting” and “Argo.”

But what the public has seen on film has different greatly from what we’ve witnessed, at times, in real life – his public divorce with Jennifer Garner and his struggles with alcoholism that’s led him to two relapses in recent years.

Affleck’s latest film, “The Way Back,” mirrors his situation today, where a recovering alcoholic is trying to take it one hour at a time, one day at a time and one week at a time, trying to stay away from the downward spiral  inside of vodka bottle.

As Jack Cunningham, his day is pure monotony. Wake up and drink a beer in the shower. Pour vodka into a coffee canteen and drive to his dead-end construction job in Los Angeles. Drink some more and puff a cigarette when he’s on break. When the day’s over, head the dive bar and drink until he has to be carried home by regulars. And when the bar’s closed and he’s not passed out, he has a case of beer waiting in the fridge.

How did Cunningham, who’s in his 40s, get this way? That’s the biggest problem of “The Way Back,” which quite frankly, had the story and the director  – Gavin O’Connor (“Miracle,” “Warrior,” “Good Will Hunting” and “The Accountant”) – to be a much better sports redemption film that the final than how it turned out.

Was it because Jack’s divorced? Because of the tumultuous relationship with his late father? Because Jack’s son died before his 12th birthday? Because Jack can’t get along with his family, who remind him of his shortcomings, even at Thanksgiving?

All of these questions should have been slam dunks to for O’Connor and co-writer Brad Ingelsby. But they miss badly, failing to provide a rudder for a film in need of direction.

The sports element starts when out of nowhere. Jack, who has never coached a basketball team, get a call from Father Devine (Jack Aylward), the headmaster at Bishop Hayes, Jack’s old high school, where he is still revered for being the state’s best player while guiding the squad to the state title. The team hasn’t even made the playoffs since he graduated, shortly before spurning a full scholarship to play at the University of Kansas – a decision that was left inexplicably fully unexplained.

Jack gets offered the head coaching job since the team’s coach suffered a heart attack. He spends a night of drinking and rehearsing how he would turn down the offer but after enough beers, he accepts it. Why? Who knows?

With the team struggling mightily, Jack takes over a short and talent-challenged team – two of the worst attributes a team can have – and tries to transform it through profanity-laced tirades that don’t go over too well with the administration of a private Christian school.

At first, Jack finds solace as coach, but it doesn’t last, and as expected, he’s constantly tempted to relapse as he battles his inner demons.

For Affleck, “The Way Back” won’t win him any awards, but he deserves credit for playing a role that’s more personal to him than any other he’s done in his career.

Still, it’s not enough to turn this story about basketball, sickness, love and loss, life and death and relapse and recovery into a winner.