Historically, musicals have been most popular in eras when people in low spirits clamored for high times, and so this would seem to be the perfect moment for a renaissance. But good musicals don’t just happen. More so than with most genres, you need not only a vast armada of collaborators but also a spiritedness that can’t be faked. Set in a summer camp for young actors, singers, and dancers and featuring mostly nonprofessionals, Camp arrives with good word of mouth and rave reviews from Sundance. It’s very big on spirit, and for some people, that may be enough. But Camp is not as ingenuous as it looks.
Years ago, writer-director Todd Graff attended a summer camp for young performers at Stagedoor Manor in Loch Sheldrake, New York, and that is where the film was shot. It’s hard to believe that this compendium of laughing-through-tears-the-show-must-go-on clichés is what he actually recollects. His memory seems more keyed to old movie musicals, films like Fame and Smile, and TV shows like American Idol. Camp Ovation, as it is called in the film, is populated mostly by bitter, has-been instructors and kids who all seem to be going through highly photogenic bouts of discovering who they are. There’s Michael (Robin De Jesus), who is first glimpsed being thrown out of his junior prom for showing up in drag; Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat), a wallflower who is so desperate she needs her brother to escort her to the prom; Vlad (Daniel Letterle), who plays guitar and wants to be an actor and is apparently the only straight boy at Camp Ovation; and Dee (the big-voiced Sasha Allen), who bemoans her status as a fag hag and opens the film by belting out a number called “How Shall I See You Through My Tears.” She could begin by wiping away some of the treacle.
Graff, who has worked as an actor on Broadway and in Hollywood, and contributed to the scripts of such films as Coyote Ugly and Dangerous Minds, is no amateur: Camp is designed to siphon out our tear ducts. But even for those of us willing to suspend vast quantities of disbelief, Camp may be too much. Michael, for example, works up the courage to call his disapproving parents and invite them to a performance, and you know what’s coming next—a shot of two empty seats. Vlad the golden boy turns out to be as deeply troubled as everyone else; he needs Ellen to tell him he’s really special. Overweight Jenna (Tiffany Taylor), whose parents have recently wired her jaw shut, unwires it and, in a closing number, blows everyone away, including her very surprised mom and dad. She has a terrific voice, and so you wonder: Didn’t her parents ever listen to her singing in the shower?
Obviously, these are not the sorts of questions we are supposed to be asking. Camp—the title, of course, is a double entendre—operates on a whole other level. It’s about how the theater is a place where misfits fit in. It’s about art as a vehicle for therapeutic self-expression. All this may be true to some extent, but there’s something belittling about it just the same. The movie exhibits these kids as emotional wrecks who can only find themselves onstage, and that’s a very limiting view of the value of theater, no matter how sentimental its appeal. The apparently unintended irony of this movie is that the kids at Camp Ovation are busy putting on Sondheim shows like Follies and Company even though Sondheim is the artist most responsible for injecting a bracing dose of cynicism into the Broadway musical. But Sondheim apparently harbors his own ironies: He allowed his music to be used in this film for a pittance and even shows up for a first-time-ever cameo. He’s a softie in wolf’s clothing.
Instead of all these busy little pseudo-psychodramas, Camp might have been about something fresh—the ways in which highly talented kids, despite their rivalries and hang-ups, inspire one another through their love of performing. That’s something we don’t see nearly enough of in Camp. We don’t see any numbers built step-by-step from the ground up, or the exhilaration of young people discovering their burgeoning gifts. On the contrary, most of the kids arrive as fully formed performers; their exhilaration is all about “discovering” their own true selves. Art as a passport to healing may be what audiences are craving these days, but the poultice provided by this movie couldn’t cover a paper cut.
Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things, though worth seeing, should be better than it is. It’s about illegal immigrants in London so desperate for passports that they undergo surgical removal of their organs, mostly kidneys, for sale on the black market. Frears’s matter-of-fact style is unexploitative; his lead actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, playing a Nigerian doctor who works as a cabdriver and hotel desk clerk, is a real find. But the bland loveliness of Audrey Tautou, playing opposite him as a Turkish maid at the hotel, doesn’t provide much ballast, and many of the other characters, including a golden-hearted whore, a depraved hotel employee, and a team of immigration officers, are cut from very worn cloth.
From Bad Boys to The Rock to Armageddon and Pearl Harbor, the amped-up collaborations of producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay have resulted in some of the most soullessly slick products in the history of movies. Bad Boys II, which reunites Martin Lawrence and Will Smith as Miami narcotics agents, resembles a full-length promo for itself. The action, virtually nonstop, is a series of can-you-top-this? set pieces. Early on, during a high-speed chase, the bad guys release a bunch of cars from the back of a truck in order to smash the pursuing Bad Boys. Later on, there’s a similar scene involving corpses. There are also queasy comedy bits with Lawrence undergoing a bad ecstasy trip, or hiding in a morgue next to a voluptuous stiff. Anything for a cheap laugh or a (not-so-cheap) cheap thrill. Lawrence and Smith fill in the downtime with buddy-buddy badinage, but is this sort of byplay even necessary anymore? In today’s mega–action comedy, any kind of genuine characterization has become vestigial.