Fox Searchlight spent $8 million dollars on Sarah Gordon and Ben Platt’s Theater Camp, but was it worth the price tag?
PLOT: The counselors at a theater camp try to save it from foreclosure when its beloved founder falls into a coma.
REVIEW: Theater Camp comes from writer-director duo Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, with Gordon doubling as the lead alongside co-stars and co-writers Ben Platt and Noah Galvin. It’s an affectionate homage to an experience that obviously meant a lot to them, with the film opening with footage of a young Platt and Gordon acting their hearts out on stage as kids. If you’re a theater aficionado, this will no doubt be right up your alley, but it lacks the hilarity and hook to justify the rumoured $8 million Fox Searchlight spent on it at this year’s Sundance. It’s pleasant enough, but it’s not especially funny.
The big problem is that the film revolves around the grownups at the camp, who are a lot less interesting than the kids themselves, all of whom are terrifically talented. There’s a great movie to be made about this bunch, but they all need to get a developed, fleshed-out story of their own. Instead, we have the same old recycled plot where a middle-class summer camp is in danger of being taken over by the elite summer camp next door, with financial vultures circling the camp, waiting for it to fail. Even this (admittedly flimsy) plot is abandoned, with too much time devoted to Gordon and Platt, who play a pair of co-dependent best friends who haven’t grown up.
We’re supposed to find them compelling, and both are talented performers, but their roles are the least interesting in the film. They’re supposed to be devoted counselors, but neither is essentially the lead figuring into the plot where they have to save the camp. Both are shown as too self-absorbed to care. Characters like this are fine, but why are they the leads? I wanted to see more of Ayo Edibiri (from The Bear) as the townie who comes to work at the camp and knows nothing about theater. Or Patti Harrison, as the movie’s “big bad,” one of the bankers wanting to shut the camp down but who suggests a certain level of vulnerability in her performance. She notably has sweet chemistry with Jimmy Tatro, who plays the “crypto bro” son of the camp’s founder (Amy Sedaris), who mounts various schemes to save the camp. He and Harrison could have been the leads, as they could have had the most affecting arcs. By contrast, Gordon and (especially) Platt’s characters come off as whiny and self-involved, which is supposed to be funny, but often falls flat. The movie adopts the trendy “mockumentary” style, but it feels like both of them are trying to be the zany “Michael Scott” character, but the film desperately needs a center to ground things.
The guy who could have been that center is Noah Galvin, who plays the camp’s technical director and is also the most talented performer. His character is supposed to lack confidence, and his arc could have been fleshed out more. He does contribute the movie’s best number in the big climax that, in a legitimately funny moment, features a bunch of kids acting out the excesses of Studio 54 on-stage.
That said, the film did play to a widely receptive audience here at the Eccles theatre (the festival’s biggest venue), with the cast apparently receiving a rare curtain call after the Q&A. A lot of people really liked it. So, while it didn’t work for me, the movie might make many people happy once Searchlight releases it. Even still, I’d expect it to perform better on streaming than in theaters.