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Movie review: Keaton’s trip to ‘Summer Camp’ has diminishing comedic returns

By Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service
Published: June 2, 2024, 6:00am

The Diane Keaton Industrial Complex is a fascinating and understudied media mini-phenomenon. Once or twice a year for the past six or so years, she anchors an ensemble comedy about the perils and pleasures of getting older, surrounded by a fabulous, Oscar-worthy cast, in which she essentially plays “Diane Keaton,” or a cartoonishly frazzled, overdressed caricature of “Diane Keaton.” On the higher end, there’s “Book Club” (2018) and “Book Club: The Next Chapter” (2023), and then you have “Poms” (2019) about a group of friends who start a cheerleading squad at a retirement home, and “Mack & Rita” (2022), about a 30-year-old who magically wakes up as her 70-year-old self, and the 2024 inverse of that, “Arthur’s Whisky,” and on and on.

Her performances in these films are harried repeats of her charming turn in Nancy Meyers’ “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003), but rather than being ensconced in a fabulous Hamptons manse, she’s usually being thrust into increasingly zany circumstances (cheerleading, a ropes course, beach yoga) to diminishing returns. It’s wonderful that she’s working and seems to be having fun, but the subgenre is such a strange curio that one has to take stock at a certain point. It’s like Keaton has assembled her own Adam Sandler-style movie camp, inviting her award-winning friends for an untaxing jaunt while giving the opportunity to a young female filmmaker to direct a feature film. It’s a fun idea, but it’s a shame about the cinematic results.

The latest of these ventures is “Summer Camp,” in which Kathy Bates, Alfre Woodard, Dennis Haysbert, Eugene Levy and Beverly D’Angelo have received their summons to report for duty, with Castille Landon as writer/director. Keaton plays workaholic widow Nora who is pressured into her 50-year camp reunion by her friend, celebrity self-help guru Ginny Moon (Bates), alongside their third pal, emergency room nurse Mary (Woodard).

You can probably guess that over the course of the weekend, these longtime camp friends are going to thrill at being back together and delight in their old crushes (Levy, wearing a stupefyingly sculpted hairpiece) before old resentments come rushing out. They’ll all do a bit of self-reflection and have an epiphany about their current stasis, and then proceed to the teary catharsis and a renewed approach to life.

There are sparks of insight that do come floating to the top, before they’re undercut by some prank or pratfall, or, regretfully, a food fight (followed almost immediately by a pillow fight). Landon’s script touches on some topics and themes that could be interesting to explore in a different genre, like Ginny Moon’s manipulations of her friends through her self-help slogans (black comedy), or Mary’s realization she’s trapped in a toxic marriage to an incompetent husband (domestic drama). In fact, only Woodard delivers an actual performance, not that it’s allowed to fully shine. Every time the film seems on the precipice of insight, Josh Peck scares a horse or Betsy Sodaro unleashes an unhinged ad-lib, and it’s back to wacky.

Landon’s aesthetic is bright, flat and colorful, marked by predictable rhythms and an overuse of popular pop songs intermingled with a standard-issue “whimsical comedy” score by Tom Howe. The most interesting design elements of these kinds of films are usually the wigs (Bates sports an orange bob here), as well as Keaton’s costumes. In “Summer Camp,” she wears her signature bowler hats and glasses, and performs archery in a three-piece suit. In one of the film’s only legitimately (and unintentionally) funny jokes, Ginny Moon gives Nora a makeover and her new look is a full skirt paired with a crisp white Oxford and a giant belt, one of Keaton’s most iconic outfits going back to “Because I Said So” (2007), something real Keaton-heads would clock right away.

While there are pops of piquancy in Landon’s script, her direction and the performances (with the exception of Woodard) fail to inspire much more than a shrug. “Summer Camp” is only mildly interesting as another entry in the Keaton-verse.


‘SUMMER CAMP’

1.5 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: PG-13 (for sexual material, strong language and some underage smoking)

Running time: 1:35

How to watch: In theaters

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