LOS ANGELES — Sam Rockwell's reliably scruffy, irreverent swagger is much in evidence in his latest film "The Way, Way Back." It's a serio-comic coming of age tale that has Rockwell playing Owen, the slacker manager of a water slide park who teaches our young hero, Duncan (Liam James), about girls, love and self-worth.
Rockwell's performance has critics contorting this way and that to find analogies.
"Rockwell makes Owen his version of 'M*A*S*H's' Hawkeye Pierce," ventured The New York Daily News. No, Owen's "a combination of the Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield characters in 'Caddyshack,' cool but with an anarchic streak," declares The New York Post.
But think of Rockwell's self-described affinity for the work of Bill Murray. Might Owen be his version of Tripper in Murray's breakout film, 1979's "Meatballs"?
"Bingo," Rockwell says. "Yeah, there's a lot of that guy in him. I was thrilled to play Owen mentor, lover, slacker, goofball. What a great character, a no-brainer for me to play when they offered me the part."
Like "Meatballs," "The Way, Way Back" features a lost kid who befriends an offbeat, rebellious older man for the summer. As in "Meatballs," the mentor is a would-be ladies man who pines for a colleague (Maya Rudolph) who is more mature and won't give him the time of day. And as in "Meatballs," "Way, Way Back" lets the kid learn from both the patter of the mentor, and the mentor's obvious shortcomings.
"Owen chases Caitlyn (Rudolph) because she's this grown woman who can kind of set him straight," Rockwell says. "There's a maternal thing going on there, a maturity. She's the one person who can make him give up all his nonsense."
Rockwell's formidable screen reputation in dramas such as "Conviction," thrillers like "Moon" and dark comedies such as "Seven Psychopaths" or "Choke" spins out of his smart mouth, his disreputable screen appearance and his sheer unpredictability.
"The magic on film comes from those moments where something feels spontaneous," Rockwell says. "Hard to do, because you're working from a script and you're doing more than one take. You've got to throw things in there a LOT of things in there to make it seem this moment is happening for the first time, with every take. I do the same thing on stage, trip it up a little." And it takes effort to find each character's off-the-thrift-store-rack appearance.