"Stolen Summer" (IMDb listing) is the end byproduct of Project Greenlight, a screenwriting contest held almost two years ago by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon as a way of discovering new talent. The winner, out of 10,000 submitted screenplays, was Pete Jones, a production assistant living in Los Angeles. The making of "Summer" was chronicled on the HBO series "Project Greenlight." The show was a hilarious and horrifying look into the making of this low-budgeted picture, and its follies came to be the stuff of heavy water-cooler debate. But the contest is over, the film was made, the show has aired and now we're stuck with the actual movie.
The year is 1976, and Pete O'Malley (Adi Stein) is a curious nine-year-old basking in the warm summer glow of suburban Chicago. While living in a principled Irish-Catholic house with his seven siblings, father Joe (Aidan Quinn) and mother Margaret (Bonnie Hunt), Pete begins to question whether or not Jewish people can get into Heaven. His curiosity leads him to Rabbi Jacobsen (Kevin Pollak) and his cancer-stricken eight-year-old son, Danny (Mike Weinberg). Pete and Danny strike up a friendship, as Pete sends the younger boy through a series of endurance tests, with his reward being salvation into the afterlife. While the Rabbi finds Pete's "quest" amusing, Joe is less than pleased. This leaves Pete trying to help Danny out without encouraging the wrath of his father.
Now, to be fair, this is Pete Jones's first produced screenplay, and also his inaugural turn behind the camera. There should be a level of expectation that the film won't have that warm, comfortable level of polish that most feature films share. But by even making that leap, and taking into consideration the story's inherent fluffiness, "Stolen Summer" is still one poorly made picture. On almost every level, Jones flounders where so many other first time filmmakers have managed to succeed.
Even though he is working from his own script, Jones seems unsure where "Stolen Summer" should go. At one point, it's a coming of age drama, another, a gripping family saga, and still another, a movie-of-the-week tearjerker. There are too many heads to this cinematic hydra, with Jones's only chance for success coming from a realization of this overstuffed story in the scripting process. Or maybe "Summer" got jacked in the editing room, as subplots and performances drop in and out without any finesse. Whatever occurred, "Summer" is incomplete and poorly aligned.
What literally saves Jones's tail end from disaster is the acting, starting with comedian Kevin Pollak, who gives easily the best performance of his career as the emotionally-drained Rabbi. Pollak is absolute aces in the role, which requires a serious reigning of the mugging he is known for. Aidan Quinn also gets a chance to show a little more range than normal as the fireman hero/domestic warden father. Unfortunately, Quinn is hot-boxed in by Jones' wildly uneven direction, which has his character Joe a raging anti-Semite one second, and a devoted dad and suburban hero the next. A role like this can conceivably work, but with writing that fleshes out the character motivations in a much clearer way, and direction that is willing to take the time to find the rainbow of thought for someone this complex. And Jones does neither. Quinn survives the mess Jones creates for him by sticking to his guns and acting his way out of the mire slowly but assuredly.
Although Bonnie Hunt can play the devoted wife and mother role with one rolling pin tied behind her back, she nevertheless is always a welcome site for these sore eyes. Working upstream with the rest of the cast, Hunt manages to glow as brightly as always, and slides in some much needed laughs every now and again.
Crippling the film in a major way is the casting of Stein and Weinberg as the friends Pete and Danny. The two come off as cold and lifeless as any child actors I've seen. The core of "Summer" is centered around these two boys, and their failure to engage or even seem real breaks the film in two. Whenever they appear in a scene by themselves, I always prayed one of the adult actors would come in to rescue the film.
While I cannot blame Miramax for pushing "Stolen Summer" as the "Project Greenlight" filmhow else do you sell a story like this in today's marketplace?it does take away from the picture when you're consistently reminded of all the hilarious nonsense that went on during the making of this film. Posters and commercials are one thing, and can be avoided, but Miramax has placed a brief clip reel of the more memorable moments from the "Greenlight" show directly in front of the film. So when "Stolen Summer" reaches any kind of emotional tent pole, all I could think about was when the production was filming that day and it couldn't stop raining, or when producer Chris Moore was chewing out Jones for something nonsensical, or cinematographer Pete Biagi's refusal to follow a shot list, or even when little Adi Stein didn't know how to swim when part of the film takes place in the water.
It really takes away from the magic of movies, and lessens any impact "Stolen Summer" had to begin with.
Filmfodder Grade: C-