How feeble a movie is "Stolen Summer"? So feeble they've just about buried the title on the film's own poster. By far the biggest letters go to "the Project Greenlight movie" and the tagline "You saw the back-stabbing. Now see the final cut." Don't even think about it.
Project Greenlight is the name given to an online screenwriting competition thought up by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and their producing partner Chris Moore. The winner would get $1 million to make a feature, with Miramax Films agreeing to distribute the finished project. Oh, yes, and an HBO camera crew would be on hand to record everything that went on during the shoot.
The resulting 12-part "Project Greenlight" series turned out to be a compulsively watchable word-of-mouth hit for HBO, as viewers were fascinated by the mishaps and tribulations of contest winner and first-time director Pete Jones. But while the series was rife with emotion, drama and, yes, back-stabbing, the inert and dispiriting film that resulted has none of the above. It's enough to put you in mind of Oscar Wilde's line about putting his genius into his life and only his talent into his work, except that if Pete Jones has any talent, he's managed to keep it hidden.
Frankly, Jones comes off in the HBO series as such an earnest guy it's difficult to say bad things about him. It feels deeply unfair to have selected such a clueless naif, someone whose movie experience was limited to working as a production assistant, to direct a film from his own script, no matter how much he wanted to. In fact, watching "Stolen Summer" makes one question the entire Project Greenlight process, starting with the notion that anyone off the street is fit to write and direct a motion picture if only they want it badly enough. Clearly, this is not the case. Be careful what you wish for; be very, very careful.
It also strains credulity to believe that this mawkish script, which makes the average after-school special play like vintage John Waters, was the best of the more than 7,300 submitted. (And if it was, way too many people have way too much spare time.) Watching "Project Greenlight" and "Stolen Summer" raises the possibility that Jones and his work were selected because his personal qualities would make him the perfect lamb to be led to the slaughter.
And that's what we have here, as capable actors like Aidan Quinn, Bonnie Hunt, Kevin Pollak and Brian Dennehy (as a kindly old padre) end up looking lost and listless as they struggle to overcome the film's numbing lassitude.
Set in Chicago in 1976, "Stolen Summer" reeks of dime-store ecumenicism. Featuring an Irish Catholic boy determined to convert his Jewish friend to the true faith so he can get into heaven, it has something of the flavor of vintage Sunday morning TV shows like "Lamp Unto My Feet."
Cherubic 8-year-old Pete O'Malley (Adi Stein, apparently the son of a rabbi in real life) has decided to devote the summer between the second and third grade to a "quest" that will convince the nuns who teach at his parochial school that he is not going to hell. If that sounds dicey, you have no idea.
Pete is one of eight children in a typically boisterous Irish movie family run by father Joe (Quinn), a good-hearted if hot-tempered lout of a fireman, and mother Margaret (Hunt), who juggles all those kids with firm good humor and sass in her voice. At first, the only Jew Pete manages to meet is Rabbi Jacobson (Pollak), who is initially impressed by the boy's determination. The two families get closer when Pete's dad rescues the rabbi's son Danny (Mike Weinberg) from a major fire. Naturally, Pete decides to convert the surprisingly willing Danny, but since he has no idea what conversion actually entails, he comes up with a cockamamie athletic decathlon as a substitute.
As if this wasn't screwy enough, "Stolen Summer" throws in angry family disputes (Joe doesn't want his eldest son to go to college) and a disease of the week, in this case leukemia for poor put-upon Danny. All this despite the fact that the film's touch with serious material is worse than its feeling for the whimsical.
Unconvincing and contrived from start to finish, "Stolen Summer" would never have had a prayer of being made except for Project Greenlight. When co-producer Affleck is quoted at the beginning of the HBO series saying "this may be a grand catastrophe," he likely had no idea how prophetic a statement that would be. Or did he?
MPAA rating: PG, for thematic elements and language. Times guidelines: A child's death factors into the plot.
Aidan Quinn...Joe O'Malley
Bonnie Hunt...Margaret O'Malley
Kevin Pollak...Rabbi Jacobsen
Eddie Kaye Thomas...Patrick O'Malley
Mike Weinberg...Danny Jacobsen
Adi Stein...Pete O'Malley
Brian Dennehy...Father Kelly
A LivePlanet production, released by Miramax Films. Director Pete Jones. Producers Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Chris Moore. Executive producers Michelle Sy, Pat Peach. Screenplay Pete Jones. Cinematographer Pete Biagi. Editor Gregg Featherman. Music Danny Lux. Production design Devorah Herbert. Set decorator Martha Ring. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
In limited release.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times