By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
In the past week I've seen two very good movies about very unusual, yet true, callings. Neither is something I would personally attempt. But the people obsessed with birding in The Big Year and now a 900-mile walking pilgrimage in The Way make me a bit envious. These characters have something inside that I don't. Few of us do.
That might explain why The Big Year was a big box office flop in its debut. The movie treats birding with respect while so many moviegoers would prefer ridicule. The same can be expected for The Way and its handling of spiritual awakening from the feet up. In each case that's a shame.
The Way is written and directed by Emilio Estevez, another reason the masses won't buy into it after his spotty career. It stars his father, Martin Sheen, as Tom, an ophthalmologist whose son Daniel died soon after beginning the trek from France through Spain on El Camino de Santiago, leading to the cathedral where St. James is believed to be buried. Estevez also plays Daniel in brief flashbacks and hallucinations.
Tom isn't a religious man, or an especially close father since his wife died. Daniel's quest on El Camino is something he couldn't fathom, and that drove them farther apart. In an effort at atonement, Tom makes the journey in Daniel's memory, using his son's hiking equipment and sprinkling his cremated remains at points along the way.
Don't worry, The Way isn't as somber as that sounds. Like any road trip movie the path is scattered with colorful characters and, in this case, vibrant culture. Estevez stated in interviews that The Wizard of Oz influenced his style, with Tom as a grouchy Dorothy and three traveling companions discovering their hearts, brains and courage.
Joost (Yorick van Wageningen) is a jocular Dutchman with a stash of marijuana, constant munchies and the waistline to show for it. He's walking El Camino to lose weight. Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) is a bitter divorcee and chain smoker pledging to quit the habit when she reaches Santiago. Jack (James Nesbitt) is an Irish author full of blarney, suffering from writer's block that he hopes El Camino will cure.
They're an entertaining foursome, and Estevez guides them through lovely scenery, clever sight gags and personal confessions with leisurely skill. Several of the best scenes don't occur while walking but while resting, in barracks where dozens of pilgrims sleep in bunk beds, or a gypsy neighborhood after a boy steals Tom's backpack holding Daniel's ashes and his shamed father wants to make amends.
The Way gets a bit repetitive in its midsection, and Estevez's pacing occasionally might be punned away as pedestrian. Yet like The Big Year it contains blissful moments of clarity and awareness that few movies have lately. You walk out of the theater feeling better about yourself. Not enough to hike 900 miles or chase birds around North America, but it's a start.
Steve Persall can be reached at persall@ sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365.