Combustible Celluloid
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With: Daniel Letterle, Joanna Chilcoat, Robin De Jesus, Steven Cutts, Vince Rimoldi, Kahiry Bess, Tiffany Taylor, Sasha Allen, Alana Allen, Anna Kendrick, Don Dixon, Robert Orosco, Stephen DiMenna
Written by: Todd Graff
Directed by: Todd Graff
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic elements regarding teen sexual issues, and some language
Running Time: 114
Date: 01/21/2003

Camp (2003)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Camp' Mire

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Todd Graff's Camp is uproariously funny for about one hour and then ... it's not. Basically the filmmakers have fun and joke around but suddenly get serious -- as if their boss discovered them lounging around in the break room too long.

This phenomenon, rampant in American comedies, has bothered me ever since I first saw it in 1979's Meatballs, which also takes place at a summer camp. Here we are, having a ball, laughing and joking around and grooving, and then all of a sudden, we're supposed to care about some nerd winning a footrace.

It's possible to be funny and tell a story at the same time, but it's very difficult and rare to do it successfully. Chaplin and Keaton could do it. Preston Sturges could do it. So could Woody Allen and Billy Wilder. Even the brothers Farrelly and Coen have managed to do it from time to time.

But Todd Graff, a writer (The Beautician and the Beast) and actor (Death to Smoochy) who makes his directorial debut with Camp, can't.

Camp takes place at a summer camp for theater students. The regulars, made up mostly of gay boys and straight girls, are surprised when a lone straight guy, Vlad (David Letterle), joins their ranks -- auditioning with a light-rock cover of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" instead of a show tune. Of course, everyone falls in love with him -- including his roommate Michael (Robin De Jesus) and shy Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat) -- and he loves the attention.

A washed out composer with a single distant success on his resume, Bert (Don Dixon) makes up the rest of the film's bulk.

The film begins by making fun of these characters and many others. One of the funniest involves small, shy Fritzi (Anne Kendrick) and popular, sexy blonde Jill (Alana Allen). Fritzi immediately makes herself available as a doormat for Jill, doing her cleaning and washing in order to bask in Jill's glory. But when they have a falling out, Fritzi's natural venom bubbles to the surface, and she backstabs with the best of them.

No character is safe, especially a fat girl who takes a few harsh jokes and then disappears from the film without a trace. (Another so-called fat girl turns up -- her father has wired her jaw shut to keep her from overeating, but this girl winds up the belle of the ball.)

Eventually the jokes peter out and we're treated to a bizarre collection of musical numbers that have been spruced up for "Camp" (and camp) purposes. Burt Bacharach's "Turkey Lurkey Time," from Promises, Promises emerges as the oddest of these.

One of the best, though, is a song called "Century Plant" (written by Victoria Williams) that masquerades as one of Bert's unpublished, unsung compositions, which the musicians get together and sing the hell out of. It's a pretty powerful moment and the best part of the movie's unfunny second half.

Still, the two halves of the film just do not mesh. One half laughs at the characters and the other half laughs with them (or not at all). Graff never bothered to ask himself if he likes these characters or not; when he changes halfway it feels insincere, like a bully who feigns a truce just to get another knuckle sandwich in.

I hate to recommend such an uneven film, but one hour of funny may be the best we can do in this dismal summer. Or better yet, stay home and rent Daniel Waters' much funnier and more bizarre Happy Campers.

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