Review: Diane Keaton and Crew Pander and Stumble Their Way Through Summer Camp

I almost skipped reviewing this one this week, but then the protector in me said, “No, the people need to know; they need to be warned.” So here I am, telling you that under no circumstance should you or anyone you care about go see Summer Camp, the latest from writer/director Castille Landon (the filmmaker responsible for the After We Fell series, whatever that is). In Summer Camp, three childhood friends who attended the same camp every summer are reunited decades later at the same camp to rekindle their relationship and have revelation after revelation about their miserable individual lives while having disastrous misadventures river rafting, zip-lining, food fighting, and flirting with the suave men from their old camping group. Will the laughs ever stop?

Will they ever start?

Why would I ever watch a movie like this? Because at least once a year, I need to watch a movie starring Diane Keaton to remind myself how the mighty have fallen. But little did I know that Summer Camp is front-loaded with fallen greats. Oscar-winner Kathy Bates stars as Ginny, who as a girl was always interested in helping out those in distress, and is now a successful self-help author on the verge of taking her brand global. She’s actually the mastermind behind the reunion, which includes what seems like hundreds of former campers her age, but her focus remains on her two old friends, Nora (Keaton), a workaholic CEO who has numbed the pain of losing her husband years ago by burying herself in work; and Mary (Alfre Woodard), stuck in a decades-long, loveless marriage and excited about the prospect of taking this trip by herself, for herself.

After driving to the campsite in Ginny’s tricked-out RV, they stumble through activities, hangouts, meals, and everything else you do at a campground, including mixing it up with the younger counsellors like the accident-prone Jimmy (Josh Peck) and the borderline mentally ill Vick (Betsy Sodaro), who takes her job a little too seriously and seems way too eager to issue punishments. Although the grounds are teeming with similarly aged campers, Ginny, Nora and Mary seem to exist in a world of their own, much as they did as children. They were the three outsiders who shared a cabin and avoided the more popular kids, like the snobby Jane (played as a grownup by Beverly D’Angelo).

The ladies also reunite with a couple of boys (now men) they liked back in the day—Stevie D (Eugene Levy, playing it way too straight) and Tommy (Dennis Haysbert). With Stevie getting pushed into a bit of flirting by Nora and Tommy with Mary, it seems weird that Ginny is left alone as far as coupling goes. Now don’t get it wrong, these pairings are based on nothing but convenience. Mary’s issue with her husband is that he doesn’t listen, and Tommy’s best line is “I love listening to you.” Nora works too much, and Stevie once had a heart attack because he overworked himself and has since learned to step away from the office and enjoy life. What a coincidence! 

Perhaps the most painful thing about Summer Camp (and there are so many things to choose from) is watching Eugene Levy play a romantic leading man and never crack a single joke. His only job is to respond to Keaton acting like a stuttering, stammering grown child. If you’ve seen anything she’s made in the last 20 years, then you know exactly what to expect here—from the fashion and hairstyle to the performance. And her reductive acting style spills over into what Bates and Woodard do as well. Few things hurt more than watching the regal Woodard act like a timid school girl around Haysbert. She is better than that in every possible way, and to watch her cower like she does here is cruel to her and the audience. Bates gets away with it a little more easily because Ginny is a clown from the start, so there’s no concern with taking her seriously at any stage of this film.

Summer Camp even has a blooper reel during the end credits, and quite often scenes in blooper reels can be among the funniest in the whole movie. But don’t worry, even the outtakes here are laugh free. You might think I’m being unnecessarily harsh on Keaton and Co., but as long as she keeps putting out garbage, I’m going to keep calling her out for it. Very often, family-oriented movies will get called out for pandering to children, but this film panders to the elderly with jokes about getting drunk, being promiscuous, and putting themselves in camp-related scenarios that might be dangerous to the oldsters (archery is a frequent subject matter). And like Keaton's skills with a bow and arrow, every single line of comedy misses the mark. Poorly written and directed, Summer Camp is agonizing from beginning to end, and no amount of bug repellent can save you.

This film is (remarkably) now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.