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The Way

Performances light ‘The Way,’ directing doesn’t

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / October 7, 2011

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If you saw the 2006 misfire “Bobby,’’ you can’t be blamed if the words “an Emilio Estevez film’’ fill you with blind panic. But the actor’s latest shot at writing and directing isn’t so bad. Earnest, inspirational, nice, dull, “The Way’’ is small-scale compared to the all-star ambitiousness of Estevez’s last movie. It’s just a story about a 500-mile walk to the sea. A pedestrian tale, literally.

But that’s being mean, and “The Way’’ disarms meanness, even with its awkwardly directed opening scenes. The director’s dad, Martin Sheen, has been drafted to play Tom, an uptight American businessman who flies to Spain to claim his grown son’s body. Daniel (played by Estevez and seen in flashback and a few ghostly moments) was a seeker who died of exposure while trying to walk the Way of St. James, a.k.a. El Camino de Santiago, a 1,000-year-old pilgrimage route through Basque Country and points west. After much grumping, Tom decides to complete his son’s journey, scattering the cremated remains along the way.

Sheen has a meaty part and he knows it. Tom is a cautious, curmudgeonly man who never understood Daniel’s need to jump off the merry-go-round. The first days are a broad comedy of adaptation, as the grieving hero wheezes into shape and avoids contact with the other pilgrims crowding the Way. Of course he’ll rejoin humanity on the long road to Santiago; there would be no movie otherwise.

The traveling company that forms around Tom has been plucked from the handbook of national clichés. First there’s Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a tubby, life-affirming Dutchman who’s walking to lose weight and who isn’t above the occasional spliff. Then there’s Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), a bitter, chain-smoking Canadian. Finally - because every film needs a blarney-talking Irishman - there’s Jack (James Nesbitt), a hack journalist trying to get past his block by writing about the trek. When he hears Tom’s story, his eyes go ka-ching: Here’s his human-interest hook.

They all have secrets and they all get to divulge them in soul-baring monologues. The dialogue in “The Way’’ is sincerely platitudinous, and Estevez has less of an idea about where to put the camera than when he started two decades ago. He is - how to put this? - not a good director.

But he does have a great subject (some of us have never heard of the Way of St. James) and beautiful locations, and he has good actors doing their manful best to humanize the thin characters he has written. And womanful: Unger, who in the early 1990s livened up some sexpot roles with a dash of kink (Cronenberg’s “Crash’’ was the best of the bunch), has aged into a hard-edged, genuinely striking presence. She’s a cross between an LA blonde who’s seen too much and the Queen Mother from “Aliens,’’ and I mean that as a compliment.

Somewhere along the voyage, a viewer may feel free to give in to the temptation to chuck his or her own cynicism and come along for the stroll. That’s fine; if nothing else, “The Way’’ is a good, cheap vacation. At times, you wonder if Estevez isn’t creating a cracked therapeutic remake of “The Wizard of Oz.’’ He’s got the nerve and the heart, all right. I’m less sure about the brains.

Ty Burr can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.

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THE WAY Written and directed by: Emilio Estevez

Starring: Martin Sheen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt, Yorick van Wageningen

At: Boston Common, Liberty Tree Danvers

Running time: 96 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (thematic elements, some drug use, smoking)

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