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The Cruelest Month 

Stolen Summer, Son of the Bride and the dregs of March

Wednesday, Mar 20 2002
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Watching movies in March is a lot like shivering through the last days of a New York winter -- both are seasons of seemingly interminable desperation. As most of the country fights off seasonal affective disorder (SAD), filmgoers endure movie affective disorder (MAD) brought on, year after year, by exposure to the likes of 3000 Miles to Graceland, 8MM, Booty Call and now Stolen Summer, a promotional gimmick that‘s being slipped into theaters with the sort of stealth accorded only the unprofitable or the unwatchable. A period story about a Catholic boy who tries to help a Jewish friend get into heaven by sending the audience straight to hell, Stolen Summer is indeed unwatchable, though its profitability will be more difficult to gauge given its genesis. For those without premium cable, a little background may help. In 2000, LivePlanet, a media company founded by actors Ben Affleck and Matt Damon with producers Chris Moore and Sean Bailey, initiated a contest called Project Greenlight that would give an aspiring filmmaker what sounded like a terrific break -- the opportunity to direct a feature-length film. Also onboard were Miramax, which would bankroll and release the feature into theaters, and HBO, which would produce and air a 12-part behind-the-scenes series documenting the project from start to finish.

The contest was sold and bought in the press as a golden opportunity for untried talent; less often noted was the fact that it also served the interests of its backers. On the most basic level, Project Greenlight looked to earn the newly launched LivePlanet valuable exposure while allowing HBO and Miramax to buff their reputations as creative risk takers. And if one of the eventual 10,000 contestants delivered the goods, the associates would profit in other ways as well. As reported in Variety, contracts for contest participants stipulated that ”Each of the Top 250 and Alternates will be required to grant (or, as applicable, confirm prior to the grant of) certain rights (including, without limitation, intellectual-property rights) to Miramax, HBO andor LivePlanet Films.“ In other words, in addition to everything else, Project Greenlight was a fishing expedition, ostensibly for talent. ”Ostensibly“ because the fish the partners landed was one Pete Jones, a former insurance agent who’d written an autobiographical screenplay about the 8-year-old son of a large Chicago family during the mid-1970s.

Jones wrote a puerile script, yet, as the documentary series reveals, Stolen Summer wasn‘t just chosen by committee; it was chosen by a committee that seemed as concerned with its aspirant’s on-camera presence as it was with the quality or the workability of his screenplay. Jones‘ story centers on a Catholic kid named Pete O’Malley (Adi Stein) who tries to help his Jewish friend, Danny Jacobson (Mike Weinberg), get into heaven. (Everyone has a name off a 1930s programmer.) Pete is one of eight kids, the son of a bluff fireman, Joe (Aidan Quinn), and the relentlessly cheerful Margaret (Bonnie Hunt), while Danny is the only son of a local rabbi (Kevin Pollak), a mensch with the patience of Job. Irish Joe drinks, but he‘s a brave firefighter, as well as a fundamentally decent man; Margaret is a cardboard saint (either that or she’s popping Valium on the sly) surrounded by a sketchily drawn brood. In scene after scene, the actors flounder in awkwardly framed shots that are often as blurry emotionally as they are literally out of focus, which is no surprise if you‘ve watched the HBO series. Although it’s unlikely, as the documentary makes clear, that Stolen Summer could ever have made a good film, Jones -- subject to repeated ridicule from the very people purporting to help him -- was less than well-served by his mentors. It‘s not unusual for crews to hate the director; the above-the-line guys, on the other hand, don’t usually vent such spleen on the set.

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Even if the expedition has thus far resulted in little of tangible worth, everyone involved, even the hapless writer-director and his bungling crew, has probably come out ahead. HBO came out the best, reaping kudos for a compulsively watchable series that should be required viewing for every would-be filmmaker. LivePlanet didn‘t do badly, either: The project helped land the company on the cover of Fortune and The New York Times’ Sunday arts section, taking it from obscurity to putative player status, and it made a minor star out of Chris Moore, a bully with a knack for making everyone else look like an idiot. (Funny, didn‘t he hire all those bunglers?) The dividends for Miramax are more ephemeral -- after all, it has to release the movie -- yet there’s no question the film served the company‘s interests. In Project Greenlight the series, Harvey Weinstein delivered a mogul performance straight out of Central Casting, while the company came off as a thoroughly benign -- and detached -- part of the equation. However benighted, the project lubricated Miramax’s relationship with Affleck and Damon, and, crucially, helped resuscitate its languishing reputation as a champion of independent cinema. Or at least that‘s what reporters have been asserting since Stolen Summer’s premiere at Sundance, an honor that left more savvy industry-watchers shocked, shocked.

If there are no lessons to be learned from Stolen Summer, it‘s because the surrounding sideshow -- from the carnies hawking the film’s wonders to the rube critics who‘ve already slapped down their nickel-plated approbation -- isn’t any different from those once staged by the likes of William Castle. Then as now, it‘s the sideshow with its under-seat buzzers, amazing fat man and phony, pumped-up excitement that is of greater importance, and loads more fun, too. Moviegoing is never only about the movies, and even less so during the arid season when the films themselves can seem incidental to the gloom they inspire. Which is as good a way as any to introduce Son of the Bride, a serviceable, occasionally agreeable film that, although superior to Stolen Summer in terms of craft, is no less calculating (and shameless) in its bid for our affection. Directed by Juan Jose Campanella, who wrote the script with Fernando Castets, the film is one of this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, and has been touted in the mainstream media as an exemplar of the new Argentine cinema. Son of the Bride is certainly Argentine in location and co-financing, but from its tenacious sentimentalism to its pandering generic storytelling and America-friendly vibe, it‘s neither new nor a model of the reinvigorated national cinema that’s attracted so much recent international attention.

Restaurateur Rafael Belvedere (Ricardo Darin), one of those A-for-asshole personalities with a cell phone lodged in his ear and no time for his family, suffers a mild heart attack, then an awakening of conscience. The brush with death makes him a better father to his daughter and a better son to his parents, father Nino (Hector Alterio) and mother Nora (Norma Aleandro), but it also makes him less engaging and believable. Darin, whose looks and affect shift between Ray Romano cuddly and Chazz Palminteri scary, seems a curiously unsympathetic presence on which to hinge a midlife crisis, a characterization that paradoxically serves to hold our interest more than either his dialogue or his metamorphosis does. The squinty, unreadable half-smile Rafael wears before his heart attack is the sole unpredictable factor in a film in which the lead‘s girlfriend looks like a sitcom star and his best friend looks like Roberto Benigni. Once the character has risen from his sickbed, however, the smile widens and its mystery vaporizes, sucked into a great snot-filled squall of pop psychology. Although it’s better written and directed than the average Nora Ephron bagatelle, it‘s easy to imagine Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan slipping into a remake of Son of the Bride. That shouldn’t be held against Campanella and Castets, who have as much right to spin cliches as anyone in Hollywood. The problem is that the only thing remotely ”foreign“ here is the subtitles.

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