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Home » Culture and Criticism

Stolen Summer

Submitted by on June 6, 2008 – 7:20 AM16 Comments

It's Bunting's debut on the 12 Days Of Summer Movies stage — with, fittingly, the worst of the films on her review draw. She'd like to thank Mr. Stupidhead for suffering through Stolen Summer with her, and Pete Jones for fading into relative obscurity.

Summer Timeline: The proud tradition of summer movies strongly suggests that the characters complete some sort of mission by Labor Day, and you've got two missions on offer. The stated mission is a "quest" undertaken by eight-year-old Pete O'Malley (the almost unbearable Adi Stein). Tasked by a nun at his 1976 Catholic school to work on his staying-out-of-hell potential over the summer, Pete does not roll his eyes and spend the next few months playing sandlot baseball and eating Bomb Pops, oh no — he decides to find a Jewish person, convert him, and get them both into heaven. After marching over to the nearest synagogue and pestering the rabbi in charge (Kevin Pollak), Pete identifies his target: seven-year-old Danny, the rabbi's son, who is not only Jewish but recovering from leukemia.

…OR IS HE?

Well, Danny's definitely Jewish, which according to what Pete's been told means Danny can't get into heaven. Pete's solution: cobble together a decathlon, "like Bruce Jenner." (I don't know.) If Danny "passes" the decathlon, he'll go to heaven. (I…still don't know.) Can Danny knock off the last event, a challenging swim out to a buoy and back, and qualify for admission at the pearly gates?

(Sarah: "Gee, do you think the cancer's gonna come back?" Mr. Stupidhead: "Not if the kid fuckin' drowns like he's supposed to." We're not good people.)

The subtextual mission, meanwhile, is a quest undertaken by Project Greenlight to wring a successful movie out of the semi-autobiographical treacle penned and helmed by Pete Jones, despite Jones's inexperience; non-credible dialogue; contrived ignorance of major religions on the part of the main characters; trite subplots; a weak understanding of mid-seventies culture; Jeff Balis; and truly painful child acting that, while it is not entirely (or even mostly) their fault, is a serious problem in a film that centers on said children.

The first mission succeeds…kind of. Danny dies; we're to assume he's gone to heaven, based on various shot set-ups, but the entire decathlon is vague in both theory and execution, and the "climactic" buoy swim, made so much of in the first half of the movie, is completed offscreen in order to set up an unearned emotional payoff later (if I recall correctly, it was really because little Mike Weinberg's mother had misled the production as to his swimming abilities, and they ran out of time to get the shot).

The second mission fails, moistly.

Stolen Summer is not without potential; the story is simplistic and sentimental, but if Jones had had access to better casting — and time for a few dozen rewrites that got closer to how children think and behave — it could at least have executed its myriad clichés believably. The acting from the adults is quite good given the writing they have to work with — Aidan Quinn, playing Catholic firefighter and father of hundreds Joe O'Malley, is saddled with bigoted, underwritten clankers like "Fine, be like the Jews!", and has to swim upstream in a B-plot about eldest son Patrick's (Eddie Kaye Thomas) college plans, but thanks to both Quinn and the underrated Thomas, it leads to a handful of nice scenes. (Of course, the audience's relief that these scenes contain neither of the kids may contribute to that.) And it's utterly unbelievable that children raised in a large American city would have zero everyday understanding of other major religions (actual line of dialogue: "What's it like to be Jewish?"), but Pollak plays his scenes with the non-credibly ignorant (and poorly blocked) Pete with wry deftness.

Brian Dennehy, meanwhile, is on the point of bursting into disbelieving giggles during his scenes as Father Kelly. It's not the most professional behavior, but I feel the guy — the rabbi's last name is spelled "Jacobsen." Not to indulge in the same sort of uninformed generalization the script specializes in, but: what, he's Swedish?

Enviable Vacation Locale?: The film's one moment of dimension is a knockout sunset crane shot over Lake Michigan that does a lot of emotional work economically; DP Pete Biagi sets the visual "suburban summer past" scene very well. Depends on how you feel about Chicago, I guess.

Coming Of Age?: Nothing but. Everyone learns a Very Important Lesson about tolerance, encouraging the dreams of children, and proper application of birth control. …That last one may only show up in the director's cut.

Best Summer Ever?: No. And retitling the movie Stolen Fortnight is probably indicated; the timeline is murky, and while it's unlikely that Danny would go from riding-bikes-around-the-nabe remission to death in three days, that's how the movie makes it seem. That's this movie for you, though (don't get me started on the synagogue's board voting to give Patrick a full college scholarship 48 hours after having heard of — but not met — the kid, who does not attend that synagogue or any other).

Summer Fashions: Wardrobe apparently confused 1976 with 1966. Bonnie Hunt in particular looks like she stepped out of a Jackie Kennedy pattern book.

Worth The A/C?: No.

As A Summer Movie: The Project Greenlight season that follows the making of the movie: A-minus. (Ohhhh, Balis.) The movie itself: D-plus.

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16 Comments »

  • BSD says:

    What always creeped me out about Pete Jones was that he reminded me of Mr. Stupidhead a little(APPEARANCE ONLY!).

  • Sandman says:

    "Sarah: 'Gee, do you think the cancer's gonna come back?' Mr. Stupidhead: 'Not if the kid fuckin' drowns like he's supposed to.' We're not good people.)"

    Hee. Maybe not, but you're my kinda people.

    "Fine, be like the Jews"? Seriously? Good grief!

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @BSD: …Really? Aside from the fact that they're both Caucasian, I really do not see that at all.

  • Andrea says:

    While I have had the misfortune of seeing this movie and agree with the assessment, I do want to comment re: "[a]nd it's utterly unbelievable that children raised in a large American city would have zero everyday understanding of other major religions." I'd love to be able to agree with that, but in the early 90s, I visited a friend at her college in Ohio. I met a couple of college sophmores who (1) kept staring at me because they had never seen a Jewish person before; and (2) thought my Star of David was a "devil worship sign" (apparently to them it looked like a pentagram). Once we straightened that out, they did ask a lot of questions which showed that they had absolutely no prior knowledge of anything Jewish. Of course one of them, who was born and raised in Ohio and a college student, also said to me "you're from Michigan? I can never remember, is that a city or a state?"

  • Beth says:

    I watched the Project Greenlight season for this movie, but thankfully I never forced myself to watch the actual movie. I will say that as a Chicagoan, this:

    "The film's one moment of dimension is a knockout sunset crane shot over Lake Michigan that does a lot of emotional work economically"

    would have bugged the crap out of me and totally taken me out of the scene, because the sun does not set over Lake Michigan, it rises. But I'm nit-picky like that. It's why I can never really enjoy [i]While You Were Sleeping[/i], or certain episodes of ER (most notably one where Doug tells Carol to meet him at the intersection of two streets that are, in fact, parallel).

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Andrea: Were they from large metro areas? Maybe I'm wrong about this, but it does seem like a kid who lives in Chicago, and who furthermore has a handful of older siblings more worldly than himself, would not be quite so clueless as to the basics of a religion as widespread in the U.S. as Judaism. Lord knows the character's father was all up to date on the stereotypes.

    @Beth: If I recall correctly from the show, the shot was taken at sunrise…and you can kind of tell that anyway, because the quality of the light is different. But the intent was sunset, so that's how I described it.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Also, generally: UBB code doesn't work in the comments. You can keep using it if you like, it doesn't bother me. Just for your information.

  • Roisred says:

    Beth:

    How 'bout in "When Harry Met Sally" where they leave the University of Chicago by heading south INTO the Loop. That was always my favorite.

    I have to agree with Sandman. My kind of evil.

  • Georgia says:

    This is embarrassing, but I…didn't know what the difference between Judaism and Christianity was until I was a freshman in high school (where about 25% of the kids were Jewish). I knew there WAS a difference, and that Jews celebrated Hannukah instead of Christmas, but had no idea what that difference was.

    Granted, I grew up in a very small town, but I did have Jewish friends and neighbors growing up (though I kind of only knew that in retrospect), and consider/ed myself smart and well-informed.

    I chalk this up to a mother who knew/knows very little about religion(s), and a father who really dislikes organized religion.

  • RJ says:

    What is it about the thought of Brian Dennehy breaking into "disbelieving giggles" that both cracks me up and scares me at the same time?

  • Tara says:

    Heh, "Stolen Fortnight."

  • Rachel says:

    I can totally believe that they didn't know anything about other religions. I live in New Jersey, which is full of Jews, yet our close friends asked us last December why we don't have a Christmas tree and why we didn't take our kid to go see Santa. Our response of "We're…. Jewish?" was met with "so you don't celebrate Christmas?"

    I don't think cluelessness is regional.

  • Rachel says:

    @beth: OMG I totally remember that ER episode, and even before I moved to Chicago I knew that "intersection" was wrong!

  • Scarlettb says:

    Yeah, I can definitely understand the Chicago kid not knowing about Judaism, even though they grew up in a large city. Chicago doesn't really have a huge thriving Jewish community, and most of the people I know there have never even MET anyone Jewish.

    When I was working there at UPS, they set up a Christmas tree, and I jokingly mentioned they would have to set up a Menorah, too, to be fair. Even the manager didn't know what I was talking about.

  • Deirdre says:

    A librarian I worked for – a woman who was required to have a Master's Degree just to have her job – was completely baffled by the fact that one of her employees didn't exchange Christmas presents because he was Jewish. Now, it's possible she knew the religious differences between Christianity and Judaism, and that for her "Christmas" was the completely secular and commercial holiday that it is for many Gentiles. But to not get that Jews wouldn't put up a tree and buy presents… yeah. A proud day for whatever university she attended.

  • Inksmudge says:

    @Andrea: It's amusing to me that your Star of David was mistaken for a pentacle, because more than once, while wearing my pentacle, I've had someone say, "Oh, I didn't know you were Jewish."

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