The Way - Martin Sheen
Tom Avery (Martin Sheen) undertakes a life-changing pilgrimage after his son's death © 2011 Producers Distribution Agency

Cluttered with too many quirky characters and Hallmark moments to be convincing, The Way sacrifices credibility for cliche at nearly every stop on its long journey.

Martin Sheen stars as  California ophthalmologist Tom Avery, a set-in-his-ways senior who prefers using a golf cart to walking even a short distance to the green. His semi-estranged son Daniel (Sheen’s real-life son Emilio Estevez) is a nearly 40-year-old free spirit who explains his wandering ways by saying, “You don’t choose a life, dad, you live one.”

When Daniel is killed in a weather-related mishap, Tom jets to France to pick up his body. Daniel died on the first day of what would have been a weeks-long hiking pilgrimage of over 800 kilometers to a shrine in Spain. Tom decides on the spot to cancel all appointments, strap on Daniel’s well-stocked backpack and take the journey himself — accompanied by a metal box containing his son’s ashes.

There are only two paths a story like this can take. On the easy route, the lead character will meet a series of oddball and overwritten fellow travelers, encounter only easily overcome adversities and see hokey visions of his dead son at several points along the way. The hard route would involve letting Tom change from within based on enlightening encounters with a real world that turns out to be very different from those kinds of artificial characters and predictable plot points. Sadly, The Way doesn’t take the challenging route.

The Way - Yorick van Wageningen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt and Martin Sheen
Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), Jack (James Nesbitt) and Tom (Martin Sheen) © 2011 Elixir Films, Producers Distribution Agency

Instead, the sentimental screenplay (by director Estevez) becomes a too obviously Wizard of Oz-influenced exercise. Tom accumulates unlikely equivalents of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion: a goofy Dutch pothead named Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a heartless Canadian cynic named Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) and a blocked Irish writer named Jack (James Nesbitt). Joost is the least realistic of the three, a cheerful chatterbox who says he undertook the pilgrimage so he could lose weight in order to fit into an old suit. Bear in mind that the sojourn lasts several weeks, involves food and lodging expenses every day and requires extended time off from work. Obviously, the Netherlands is in dire need of a Jenny Craig franchise.

The movie also goes wrong by subverting what should have been a meaningful cruel-world setback. Tom is devastated when the backpack containing all of his supplies — and Daniel’s ashes — is stolen by a fleet-footed Gypsy boy. That development could have made Tom re-examine the motivation for his mission, and perhaps allow him to conclude that an endurance stunt may not be the best way to grieve. Instead, the screenplay opts for a sappy and politically correct resolution to the dilemma.

Tom is possessed of such ridiculously superheroic stamina that the 60-something character regularly outpaces his considerably younger companions, despite the movie’s opening setup showing him as lazy and overindulged. He never is seen to suffer so much as a foot blister or chafing, much less any joint pain, hip problems, or backaches. Sure.

Shot with available light on a grainy film stock, the movie also squanders the on-location settings that should have been its main visual asset. Having said that, The Way does get points for including many scenes shot in overcast and otherwise unpleasant conditions, as opposed to featuring only postcard-perfect images.

The Way is nowhere near as bad as the unwatchable 2004 dramedy Around the Bend, in which family members scatter granddad’s ashes at meaningful road-trip destinations. But it’s hard not to think that a hi-def “making of” documentary would have been more entertaining and interesting than the movie itself.

[Rating: 2 stars]

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.