“The Way, Way Back”: The downward slide of adolescence

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“The Way, Way Back” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. PG-13, 1:42, three stars out of four.

I had the darnedest time early on trying to figure out when “The Way, Way Back” was set. The cars, the clothes, and the soundtrack definitely pointed to the debut feature from writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash as being set in the ’80s. But then smartphones and contemporary slang would creep in. Was this film set in the present day, or did it have the world’s least attentive production designer?

In fact, “The Way, Way Back” is set in the here and now, but my confusion is somewhat understandable. The adult characters in the film, all on summer vacation on Cape Cod, are pining for their irresponsible teenage years, which happened to occur during the Reagan Administration. And the kids are living through their own version of a bittersweet ’80s John Hughes-style dramedy — Rash even based some of the more painful moments on his own adolescence back in the ’80s.

But that sort of nostalgic referencing isn’t a bad thing, as long as you try and live up to the movies you’re paying homage to. And “The Way, Way Back” turns out to be fresh and alive, embedding its feel-good comic tone in characters and situations that feel real, sometimes painfully so.

Liam James is 14-year-old Duncan, who is a model of teenage awkwardness; he carries himself like his arms and legs just sprouted the night before, and he isn’t quite sure what to do with them. He’s been dragged along to Cape Cod by his mother (Toni Collette) and her new boyfriend Trent Ramsey (Steve Carell). Carell plays pretty beautifully against type as a bullying, Type-A sort who is always on Duncan’s case, but able to say just the right things to his mom to keep her around. Honestly, Carell is more despicable in this movie than he is in “Despicable Me 2.”

The vacation is clearly a chance for the parents to get drunk and party on the beach with their friends (including Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet as neighbors, and Allison Janney as a boozy divorced mom) while their teenaged children seethe on the sidelines. Seriously, is there anything more horrifying for a teenager than to see their parents partying? “Way Back” captures that discomfort acutely.

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Retreating into himself, Duncan explores the town and finds a water park called Water Wizz that has been immaculately preserved since it opened in — you guessed it — the 1980s. Owen, the loopy manager of the park (Sam Rockwell), takes Duncan under his Hawaiian-shirted wing, and offers him a job. At the park, Duncan makes his own set of friends (including Rash and Faxon, their faces familiar from their TV work on “Community” and “Ben & Kate,” respectively) and slowly gains confidence in himself.

“Way Back” is good-natured, and just true enough about the painful humiliations that can mark the teenage years, so that when Duncan’s inevitable triumphs come, they feel satisfyingly well-earned. Unlike the charmingly cute “nerds” of most teen movies, James’ Duncan is authentically dorky and off-putting at times, and he develops a warm chemistry with Rockwell’s zinger-dropping goofball that’s clearly patterned after the Bill Murray-Chris Makepeace relationship in “Meatballs.” Rockwell is just perfect as the layabout goofball who keeps a fatherly concern beneath the surface of his zinger-a-minute patter.

My only concern here is that the water parks at Wisconsin Dells will use “The Way, Way Back” to entice Slovakian kids to come work there during the summer. (Kids, it’s just a movie! Sam Rockwell isn’t really going to become your friend!)

“Despicable Me 2”: Even a touch of evil would be nice

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“Despicable Me 2” opens Wednesday at Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema, Cinema Cafe and Sundance. PG, 1:38, 2 1/2 stars out of four.

When I took my daughter, then 6, to see the original “Despicable Me” in 2010, she laughed at the joke about how the villainous Gru’s evil scientist henchman Dr. Nefario is hard of hearing, so when Gru asked him to design a dart gun, he instead created a fart gun. She laughed about this — she laughed during the closing credits, she laughed on our way out the theater, she laughed down the hall and into the lobby, she laughed out in the parking lot and into the car, and she laughed all the way home.

It would be too much to ask the sequel to hit that same comedic sweet spot for her, of course. And “Despicable Me 2” did make the kids laugh, although not as long and not as often. It’s an amiable, visually eye-popping animated movie that holds your interest, even as you sense that it’s not really taking advantage of the possibilities offered by the first movie. And the fart gun appears a couple more times, to increasingly diminishing returns.

The delight of the first “Despicable Me” lay in its wicked premise: a Blofeld-like supervillain named Gru (Steve Carell) gets distracted from his evil plans by having to adopt three orphan girls, and finds himself ultimately tamed and charmed by them. It was genuinely sweet, but it also had a a naughty edge to it. The nefarious glee Gru took in both stealing the moon and popping a kid’s balloon animal was hard to resist.

In “Despicable Me,” that edge is mostly gone. Gru is now a happy single dad who dotes on his three girls, and converted his secret lair into a jelly-making franchise. He’s content, until secret agent Lucy (Kirsten Wiig) approaches him; the Anti-Villain League is trying to find another supervillain who hijacked a secret laboratory, and wants his help.

Gru reluctantly agrees to play hero, and goes undercover at the local mall, where the AVL are sure the supervillain is hiding. Is it the proprietor of the local Mexican restaurant (Benjamin Bratt)? Or is it the owner of the men’s wig store (Ken Jeong)? Or is it — actually, that’s all the suspects the screenplay bothers to come up with.

After the outlandish plots and visual gags of the first “Despicable Me,” going undercover at the mall is pretty underwhelming. And, more fatally, Gru as hero is just not as interesting as Gru as villain. I mean, it’s adorable how much he cares for the little tykes, and the tentative romance between him and Lucy is nice and all. But it would have been funnier to see an inkling of the old Gru peeking through, perhaps momentarily swayed by the idea of rejoining the dark side. He’s just so (shudder) nice.

The filmmakers seem to recognize that a tamed Gru isn’t that interesting, because a hefty chunk of the film focuses on his adorable, marketable Minions. (The next movie in the franchise won’t be “Despicable Me 3,” but a Minions movie.) Voiced in a kind of pidgin French by directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, the Minions are like an army of little yellow Stooges, and the film diverts its path several times to give them room to get some laughs. (They also figure into the villain’s dastardly scheme.)

The antics of the Minions are enough to keep kids and adults involved, as is the dazzling 3D, including a post-credits sequence where bubbles and butterflies float out convincingly over the audience. The kids will be happy with “Despicable Me,” the parents won’t mind.  But I couldn’t help wanting to see Gru haul out his old panda bearskin bug, just for old time’s sake.

“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”: Now you see the laughs, now you don’t

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“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” opens Friday at Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema, Sundance and Cinema Café.” 1:40, PG-13, 2.5 stars out of 4.

In magic, as in comedy, performers talk about the “build.” It’s not enough to just have a few cool illusions (or funny jokes). The show has to go somewhere, build in momentum and energy, and almost as important as what illusion you do is where it fits in with the other tricks.

“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” has a few good tricks up its sleeve. There are genuine laughs here and there, an overall spirit of sweetness and good humor, and this is the first movie in ages that knows what to do with Jim Carrey. But it doesn’t have a very strong build. The jokes just line up, one after the other, taking their turn and hitting or missing with the viewer.

The sweet tone is established in a prologue in which two lonely kids bond over a store-bought magic kit created by the legendary illusionist Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). The kids become lifelong friends, and grow up to be Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), the hottest illusionists on the Vegas strip.

Over the years, Burt gets super-rich, and super-bored, going through the motions of doing the same tricks over and over. And because there’s nothing Vegas audiences reject more than insincerity, the Burt & Anton show becomes a flop.

Their friendship severs, Anton heads to Cambodia to do “magical relief work” (a pretty funny idea), and the humbled Burt finds himself doing half-assed magic at birthday parties and retirement homes. Meanwhile, Burt has to watch as gonzo-Goth “street magician” Steve Gray (Carrey) grabs headlines with his feats of grotesque magic, such as sleeping overnight on a bed of hot coals, or going without urinating for 12 days straight. I know Carrey is a love-him-or-hate-him proposition for most people, but you have to admire the way he just throws himself full-tilt into the arrogant Gray, who is like Creed’s Scott Stapp if he did card tricks, intoning things like “I tried to warn them” before he performs his “brain-raping” (his term) illusions.

But between this and “Dinner for Schmucks,” I’m not sure Carell’s is well-chosen for broad comic characters like Burt. He just never looks comfortable in his fake mullet and perma-tanned chest – it’s a role tailor-made for a more obviously extroverted star like Will Ferrell or Jack Black (or, frankly, Carrey). He seems more at ease with the chastened Burt after his fall, and the film gets funnier at the sight of this sad-sack magician lugging his cages of pigeons and rabbits from one fleabag motel to another, or showing up for a job interview at one hotel right as it’s being demolished.

Watching Burt rediscover his love of magic, with the help of his assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde) and his old hero Rance, is kind of touching, although screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley have trouble tying the film’s redemptive arc to its comedy. And, aside from a couple of scenes, they really bobble the chance to create a duel between Burt and Steve Gray, like a comic version of “The Prestige.”

What’s surprising about the “Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is that, for a film about dexterity and sleight of hand, it’s just kind of clumsily executed, lurching from one comic set-piece to the other. Some of them are very funny on their own merits, but if this was a real Vegas magic show, much of the audience might have left midway through to see Celine Dion instead.