The Way is one of those light, cheerful crowd-pleasers that, after a short run in theaters, finds new life on Saturday afternoon cable TV. With its emphasis on pleasant pastoral landscapes and polite cross-cultural chuckles, there's nothing wrong with the film. Yet there's nothing really right with it either.
Martin Sheen plays Tom Avery, a curmudgeonly eye doctor jostled from his comfortable existence after he finds out that his restless New Age-y son Daniel (Emilio Estevez) has died while backpacking through Europe. While staying in France to retrieve his son's body, Tom learns that Daniel had just started the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, an 800-kilometer walk through Spain that tens of thousands of people travel each year. Tom is grief-stricken (and wealthy) enough to chuck his life back home and hit the dusty trail with his son's ashes along for the trip.
Emilio Estevez, Sheen's real-life son, who wrote, produced, and directed The Way, knows the nooks and crannies of backpacking culture. He catches one or two moments of cultural dislocation that others might have missed; in one scene, the other pilgrims on the Camino pelt "The American" with bread when Tom arrives late to the dinner table. Estevez also wryly acknowledges the shoddy commercialism that has sprung up in response to these pilgrims. Tom's futile attempt to fall asleep in a loud, noisy barn cluttered with bunk beds is a welcome and earthy bit of comic realism.
But as perversely thrilling as it would have been to watch Sheen walk across Spain alone for two uninterrupted hours, Estevez caves in to narrative convention and provides Tom with some unlikely friends: Deborah Kara Unger plays a brittle Canadian chain-smoker, James Nesbitt hams it up as a blowhard Irish travel writer, and Yorick van Wageningen bounces around as a guileless Dutch party bear. These three supporting characters are too squeaky-clean to inject any real, unpredictable life into the movie, but they also seem exactly like the kinds of needy random companions a gruff old guy like Tom would attract.
When it stays on its narrow path, The Way is engaging and low-key. But whenever the film digs under its surface or tries for life lessons, it feels phony. The ghost of Tom's son makes too many meaningful cameos during the journey, and there's a ridiculous gypsy sequence that attempts to teach tolerance and diversity through stereotyping as well.
Opening Friday, October 21st