Happy Campers

Thursday, July 25, 2002

I think it's pretty clear to all involved that the current system of test screenings really doesn't result in the most artistically rewarding film. The studio ushers in a bunch of people who fit the demographic range they would like to sell the film in question to, then adjust the film to try to appeal to as many people in the audience as possible. I'm not saying this process is always bad. If nothing else, it tells a studio that they shouldn't even bother trying to sucker people into seeing something truly horrible like Lost Souls or Slackers, giving them free reign to do a one-week release in February when only teenagers desparate to get out of the house will see it.

All this isn't to say you couldn't do a valid test screening - one that might actually help the filmmakers make a genuinely better film. Find some people who generally like the works of the screenwriter and director, people who like the genre in question, people who clearly understand what it is they're going for. Had they done such a test screening for Happy Campers, I like to think I'd have been in the test audience.

I've been a big fan of Daniel Waters for years. Not only did he write the brilliant script for Heathers (which has, sadly, not aged as well as I would have liked), but turned what could have been horrible throwaway trash into incredibly sharp, funny (if somewhat strange) films like Hudson Hawk and The Adventures of Ford Fairlane. His somewhat bizarre view of the world, along with some truly insipired casting choices, made Batman Returns not only one of the best sequels ever, but really gave Tim Burton the opportunity to make the strangest film he's ever done. He seemed to be Joel Silver's designated script doctor, putting him up pretty high in my pantheon of unsung Hollywood heroes, possibly surpassing Joe Dante.

Then he disappeared. A cowriting credit on Demolition Man (which, with a cast including Wesley Snipes, Sly Stallone, and Rob Schneider, was incable of being made watchable no matter what kind of script you had) Then nothing, for many many long years.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see a new credit for him show up on IMDB. And, even better, a camp movie! Who doesn't love a good camp movie?

Sadly, Happy Campers is not a good camp movie.

For those who haven't seen it, Happy Campers is the story of a bunch of sex-crazed camp counselors. Brad Renfro gets top billing as Wichita, who is supposed to be universally attractive, but otherwise, it's hard to get a handle on his personality. He's supposed to be a suave ladies man, but his behavior seems to indicate that he's possibly psychotic. He also puts a frog down a girl's bathing suit, which may be suave for a five year old, but not for an allegedly college aged guy. Then again, the people who think he's suave are mostly the campers, so maybe it's all relative.

Dominique Swain plays the goody goody girl. I guess Alicia Silverstone has pretty much priced herself out of everyone's budgets, so the roles that she should be playing are getting picked up by Ms. Swain. It's pretty much the same character she's played in everything I've seen her in (which is more than I'd like)

The movie's main flaw (aside from the always bad writing device of allowing all the characters to narrate) is an inability to focus on a tone. It does the teen sex comedy for a bit, then shifts into some very dark and somewhat depressing coming of age storylines. It feels like a couple scripts got munged together in short fashion. The overly agressive use of dutch angles throughout the film serves to make the whole film kind of disconcerting, but the script doesn't really back that up in any way. The actors, when they try to move beyond the flimsy stereotypes they've been given, get confused and muddled. Even Emily Bergl, whom I liked so much in Carrie II was uninteresting.

Maybe I can give Waters the benefit of the doubt. Maybe this was a nice, dark, strange, coming of age story. Elements of that movie keep popping up, so maybe the whole thing used to play like that. Maybe they did test screenings and the audience didn't like it, so the bigwigs told Waters to make it more like Meatballs... no, wait. They wanted something worse. Meatballs 3. The one with the alien. And I have to assume Waters did something really really horrible to piss off Joel Silver (otherwise, he'd be doing script doctoring for Swordfish), and Silver's spent the last eight years making sure Waters has absolutely no juice whatsoever in Hollywood. So Waters has to follow orders and try to turn his film into an American Pie-esque comedy, but does so with very very little enthusiasm, so that the studio will see that the film was better before they made him muck it up. Of course, the plan backfired, and they released the deliberately butchered film.

Or maybe I'm just making excuses.

Rating: D

Reviewed by Padgett Arango
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