Summer Camp review – Diane Keaton and pals reunite in so-so friendship comedy

Estimated read time 5 min read

The many gasps that met the $100m-plus box office total for 2018’s Book Club were not quite shared by all. The film, a frothy comedy led by four women over the age of 65, might have been an outlier at the time but it proved that once again, when smartly catered to, underserved audiences will come out en masse, a more inevitable result than many seem to think. When Bridesmaids proved this with younger women back in 2011, the industry was lethargic in its response, a wave of adjacent green lights failing to come as expected but Book Club had an instant impact, a string of grey-hued imitators in its wake.

But luck ran out a little faster than expected. Jane Fonda’s 80 for Brady and Diane Keaton’s Poms both fizzled upon release before even a Book Club sequel couldn’t lure audiences out, making less than a third of what its predecessor made. The reluctance of some older cinemagoers to return to the cinema as a result of the pandemic was an issue but so was positioning – nothing felt like an event compared with Book Club – and quality – nothing felt quite as sparky as it either. Keaton, who recently travelled to the UK for a British spin on the formula with Arthur’s Whisky, is trying her luck again with Summer Camp, a similarly lightweight tale of underused older female actors having fun on a bigger stage than they have become accustomed to.

While we might now be a little too accustomed to Keaton in this mode (the actor’s last decent movie being 2010’s Morning Glory with a long list of ho-hum comedies since), it’s a rarer pleasure to see Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard as her co-stars. Bates, who received the classic late stage Ryan Murphy career bump after submitting to the schlock of American Horror Story, rarely gets such generous screentime while Woodard, cruelly snubbed for an Oscar nod for her shattering performance in 2019’s Clemency, has also remained mostly in supporting mode (the Netflix road movie Juanita was an unusual lead and it was barely half the film she deserved it to be).

The three play lifelong friends who met as pre-teens at summer camp, bonding on the outskirts, but as they enter their golden years, their connection has grown tenuous. Nora (Keaton) is a workaholic widow, funneling her energy into her job and very little to anyone else, Mary (Woodard) once dreamed of being a doctor yet settled for a marriage that threw her off target and Ginny (Bates) became a famous self-help guru, earning millions yet still missing her friends. Ginny manages to corral them into attending the camp’s 50-year reunion where she hopes they will reconnect, a week that sees them living, laughing, loving and pratfalling into their next phase.

There’s a rather heroic amount of heavy-lifting forced upon the three leads, faced with a script from writer-director Castille Landon that gives them the barest of minimums to work with – predictable sitcom jokes about vibrators and plastic surgery – and a plot so underbaked that it feels more like a pilot episode: heavy on set-up, light on payoff. Rivalries, conflicts and romances are introduced (an always welcome Beverly D’Angelo plays the enhanced head of the bitchy Pretty Committee, a miscast Eugene Levy plays Keaton’s dashing love interest, a sorely underused Nicole Richie, an underrated comic actor, plays the head of the camp) but barely go anywhere and instead their days are punctuated by broad and unfunny slapstick set pieces that involve someone falling off or in something. This brand of comedy brings the very worst out of Keaton who, dressed in the exact same outfits she always wears, could be in any one of the subpar films she’s been churning out in the last decade. Her reactions have become cartoonishly overegged and when compared with her co-stars, both taking this more seriously than it deserves, the mugging becomes even harder to stomach.

Landon’s slapdash attempts at characterisation give them the simplest of beats but Bates and Woodard still try squeezing as much as they can and achieve small, effective moments against the odds. One, grappling with pockets of loneliness as a single woman whose friends have put less effort into keeping in touch, and the other, finding her own voice again after her incapable and joyless husband has tried hard to silence it. They’re both excellent, so much so that one starts to get more frustrated with the film they’re carrying, a last act dragged down by a fallout emerging from nowhere and a silly food fight that feels more suited to a Beethoven sequel. It all amounts to a passable second activity watch at best.

Bringing together groups of talented and underutilised older women and then wasting them once again is not the win it keeps being positioned as, it’s in many ways a sorer loss. Given the many recent examples and the many more to come (this summer also sees Bette Midler, Susan Sarandon, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Megan Mullally in The Fabulous Four while Keaton is set to rejoin her First Wives Club co-stars for A Childhood History Plan), the mere existence of these films isn’t enough. They ought to be good too.

  • Summer Camp is out in US cinemas on 31 May and in the UK at a later date


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