Ben Affleck in The Way Back (Photo: Warner)

★★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Gavin O’Connor
STARS Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal

The Way Back is two-thirds alkie drama, one-third sports flick. It’s designed to make audiences cheer while rooting for an underdog team and jeer when witnessing the cruelties that life has dumped upon its tortured protagonist.

Ben Affleck, in a role that he confessed offered him catharsis given his real-life woes, stars as Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball star whose alcoholism has dominated his life for quite some time. Long separated from his wife (Janina Gavankar), Jack works construction by day and works the bottle by night, but he’s offered a shot at breaking out of his stupor when he’s asked to coach the basketball team at his alma mater. He reluctantly agrees, only to find himself saddled with an outfit that rarely wins any games.

Under his tough tutelage, the team flourishes, finding itself with a shot at the playoffs for the first time in decades. His success in coaching allows Jack to feel some semblance of accomplishment and largely take control of his drinking, but his dormant alcoholism requires only one more hard-luck happenstance to break free once again.

Affleck delivers an excellent performance as the perpetually boozy Jack. Whereas Days of Wine and Roses’ Jack Lemmon and Leaving Las Vegas’s Nicolas Cage were more outsized in playing drunks, Affleck keeps his emotions largely in check, with his character so tightly wound that he seems like he might physically implode.

To raise the dramatic stakes, there’s a mid-movie revelation that brings to mind brother Casey’s Oscar-winning Manchester by the Sea — it’s an unfortunate reminder, given the superiority of that picture, but it doesn’t detract from Ben’s personal achievement here.

The sports stuff is far less compelling, as director Gavin O’Connor and scripter Brad Ingelsby make sure that every plotline concerning the players is given a happy ending. There’s virtually no element of surprise in either the on- or off-court activities, and the wrap-up to at least one of these vignettes is groan-worthy. Life is messy, but you wouldn’t know it from watching this sobering yet occasionally shallow picture.

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