Review: Summer Camp — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Diane Keaton costars with Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard as three childhood chums who attend a reunion of their old summer camp.

Summer Camp (Roadside Attractions)

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Summer Camp

⭐️ ⭐️

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

Stars: Diane Keaton, Kathy Bates, Alfre Woodard, Eugene Levy, Dennis Haysbert

Writer/Director: Castille Landon


Everyone gets to make their own career choices. I get that. And after long, illustrious decades of seeking out challenging new roles, taking chances, and flirting with creative disaster, it’s hard to blame actors for cashing in their artiste chips and settling into a glide path that ensures continued employment with minimal risk.

Robert De Niro seems to have found the best balance: For every The War with Grandpa and About My Father he still manages to squeeze in a Killers of the Flower Moon and The Irishman (it helps to have a buddy like Martin Scorsese as your personal Jiminy Cricket).

But consider Liam Neeson, long one of the screen’s most nuanced and daring actors, who now seems tragically content to portray Everymen reluctantly thrust into roles of unimagined violence (Retribution, In the Land of Saints and Sinners).

And then there’s Diane Keaton, who redefined the concept of a comedic female lead in Annie Hall, who provided the moral anchor in The Godfather, who courageously explored the dark side of singleness in Looking for Mr. Goodbar — and who, as recently as 2016, shone as the manipulative Vatican confidante in The Young Pope.

Keaton has been at this for more than 50 years, and the undeniable fact is that any female actor over 40 immediately runs into the double-barreled shotgun of Hollywood ageism and sexism. That’s probably why she has taken to producing many of her own films over the past decade. Nevertheless, her recent track record of producer/star projects — Mack & Rita, Maybe I Do, and her latest film, Summer Camp — provides clear evidence that Keaton should fire her producer.

Here Keaton costars with Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard as three childhood chums who attend what is either the 50th or 60th reunion of their old summer camp. The script says both (If you do the math, the longer interim makes more sense), and that lack of concern for detail is emblematic of the film’s ramshackle approach to what passes for a plot.

The background noise of Summer Camp is the persistent notion that it’s just going to be fun to spend a couple of hours in the company of these three endlessly appealing stars. And that’s true, as far as it goes. Not only do we like all these actors, it’s clear they really like each other. But while the stars are having enormous fun on the other side of that screen going river rafting, having food fights, and flirting with handsome, age-appropriate guys (Eugene Levy and Dennis Haysbert), we’re out in the woods somewhere, lost in the dark, desperately feeling tree trunks for some sense of where we’re going or why we’re here.

Much of that disorientation is due to the fact that, in virtually every sense, the characters in Summer Camp do things that no actual human being would ever do. When we meet Woodard, who plays an ER nurse, she interrupts a desperate CPR procedure to answer a phone call from her husband. Bates’s character, a mega-successful author/life coach, kidnaps her two old friends from their respective jobs and whisks them to the camp — the assumption being that essential health care workers and pharmaceutical company executives (that’s Keaton’s somewhat ill-defined job) can disappear for a week on a moment’s notice. And upon arrival at the lakeside camp, Bate’s character reveals that she has somehow managed to defy the laws of physics, having converted what is on the outside a tiny rustic cabin into what is, inside, a multi-story playgirl penthouse with mood lighting and Muzak.

The improbabilities in Summer Camp spread like poison ivy: Upon arrival, every one of these 60-plus campers is unexpectedly ordered to turn over their cell phones for the duration, and no one objects (except Keaton, who unreasonably insists someone at her billion-dollar company might wonder why she didn’t show up for work on Monday). A truly imbecilic camp security officer (Betsy Sodaro, channeling Chris Farley, and not in a good way) observes the campers from behind two-way mirrors and leaps out angrily when they step out of line.

And when, near the finale, the true nature of this camp reunion is revealed, well, let’s just say the plot device stinks worse than the latrines that must be around here somewhere, but no one ever seems to use.

It would be easy to lay the blame at the feet of writer/director Castille Landon (After Ever Happy, After We Fell), who heretofore has specialized in filming earnest young adult romances featuring dewy-eyed maidens and tousle-haired youths whose shirts are missing all their top buttons. But the fact is, there are a lot of grownups in the room here whose accumulated centuries in show biz could have steered the whole project in a more reasonable direction.

Besides, Landon’s resume may well explain why the only scenes in Summer Camp that work at all are the sweetly understated romantic interludes between Keaton and Levy. Here, Landon seems content to simply let the camera run while these consummate pros explore the ageless dance of two people getting acquainted, realizing they like each other, and individually considering the implications of that. At those moments, against all odds, a movie that seems determined to push us away with one unlikelihood after another suddenly draws us in with the most natural turn of events imaginable: Two people fall in love.

That’s a movie I’d like to see, and these are the two people I’d love to see in it.

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  1. Mr. Newcott, your review of “Summer Camp” was thoughtful and interesting. I agree with you about Diane Keaton and her career over the last two decades or so. She keeps repeating herself while wearing the same costumes. If I can get just one solid laugh from her I feel like I didn’t waste my time. In movies like “Plan B”, “Mama’s Boy”, “Because I Said So”, “Poms”, “Love, Weddings and Other Disasters” (perhaps her worst) “Smother” (thin but solid with Keaton fantastically funny) and yes the successful “Book Club”, she seems to be cheerfully slumming. I long for the drama years when she would be diverting and unexpected like in “Looking for Mr. Goodbar”, “Reds”, “Shoot the Moon” (possibly her greatest acting), “Mrs.Sofell”, “The Good Mother” and even ,”The Little Drummer Girl”. What Keaton needs is a good, solid script she can sink into with a great director. One who can smooth off all those mannerisms like Nancy Myers did in “Somethings Got To Give”. For me the bottom line is, Diane Keaton is in her late 70’s still starring–with name-above-the-title–in movies. That takes brilliance.

  2. This film has 2 of my favorite stars, Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard, so it would be worth seeing just for them. ‘Summer Camp’ just doesn’t seem so hot otherwise Bill, which is unfortunate. Too bad De Niro’s trashed whatever career he might have had left, but lately (in real life) has just continued doing what he’s always done; playing himself, so it doesn’t matter anyway, does it?


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