‘Summer Camp’ Review: Diane Keaton and Kathy Bates Revisit the Glory Days in Low-Stakes Comedy

Alfre Woodard, Eugene Levy and Dennis Haysbert costar in this breezy “reducing of age” film

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Roadside Attractions

It’s been 125 years since drama critic Max Beerbohm called William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” “a hoop through which every eminent actor must, sooner or later, jump.” What Beerbohm left out was that there’s more than one hoop. Certain roles and certain scenes are time-honored traditions in the acting profession, and not all of them are title roles. For every defense attorney who makes the big closing argument in an episode of “Law and Order,” there’s another actor who’s playing the corpse. And for every summer camp movie where the plucky heroes learn the true meaning of friendship, there’s also someone who has the solemn responsibility to yell, at just the right moment: “FOOOOOD FIGHT!!!”

I didn’t catch the name of the performer who yells “Food fight!” in Castille Landon’s “Summer Camp,” the latest in a long line of “reducing of age” movies, which are a lot like coming of age movies but they’re about older people feeling young again. One wishes that the naming convention from the classic comedy “Airplane!”, in which every bit actor was credited by their one line of dialogue, had caught on. But anyway, that thespian is out there somewhere, and I hope they know that they really nailed it. Well done, “Food Fight.” You’re a winner.

Oh yeah, and Kathy Bates, Diane Keaton, Alfre Woodard, Eugene Levy, Dennis Haysbert, Josh Peck and Beverly D’Angelo are in “Summer Camp” too. They’re all perfectly presentable and appear to be having a decent enough time, but not a single one of them is as memorable as the “Food Fight” actor. This isn’t a movie for deep emotional investment. It isn’t a movie for knee-slapping comedy. It’s just a low-impact exercise in light entertainment.

“Summer Camp” tells the story of Ginny (Bates), Nora (Keaton) and Mary (Woodard), who bonded at summer camp as teenagers and now, 50 years later, get roped into returning for a summer camp reunion. Ginny is a millionaire self-help guru who has group sex with Tony Robbins and Oprah Winfrey (off-camera). Nora is a workaholic bioengineering CEO. Mary is an accomplished nurse in a loveless, oppressive marriage.

They each lead accomplished lives and they each have one lesson to learn as they revisit the glory days of summer camp for a week. There’s rafting (somebody falls in the water, that’s the whole joke), horseback riding (somebody falls in the mud, that’s the whole joke) and archery (nobody gets shot, but only because they did that joke in the prologue). In between those vignettes Ginny struggles to write her big speech for the last day of camp — a weird subplot for a millionaire public speaker — and Nora and Mary woo their old summer camp flames Stevie D (Levy, sporting the sexiest hair of his life) and Tommy (Haysbert).

Castille Landon, who directed two of the six Anna Todd “After” movies, knows not to get in this film’s way. “Summer Camp” is an actors’ hangout movie, not a director’s showcase. We’re here to see familiar faces in mild shenanigans and feel comforted in the knowledge that everything is going to turn out OK. All the big leads need to do is show up and enjoy each other’s company. Only two actors are responsible for giving 110% — “Food Fight” (of course) and Betsy Sodaro (“Ghosts”), who plays a camp security officer whose impassioned line delivery and wild arm movements evoke the aggressive comedy style of Chris Farley.

And then there’s Josh Peck, a wonderful actor who somehow got cast in this movie’s Tim Conway role. He plays Jimmy, a camp employee who works at every event our heroes attend. The gag is that he keeps getting transferred to different departments every time things go wackily wrong, but the reality probably has more to do with not wanting to hire a bunch of different actors for tiny roles. Either way his best moment is when he says something soulful about deer scat. I mean that. It sounds like a dig but it’s true. Josh Peck makes us care about deer scat. He deserves better parts. He was just in “Oppenheimer” for crying out loud.

“Summer Camp” is not a particularly good movie but it’s the kind of movie that makes a film critic wonder what “good” really is, anyway. Landon’s film doesn’t stir the soul or tickle the funnybone, and yet it’s reassuring and friendly and that has some value too. It’s really not trying to impress us. It’s just trying to be decent company. Life is hard and art can be easygoing. How can we get upset at a film that, more than anything else, doesn’t want to upset us? And how can anyone resist the clarion call of a good “FOOOOOD FIGHT!!!”

A Roadside Attractions release, “Summer Camp” opens exclusively in theaters on May 31.

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