Theater Camp Review – Bland musical theater comedies fail

For all the grand gestures of musical theater, there’s a strange flatness to Theater Camp, a half-hearted and bland comedy by a group of Hollywood friends set in a summer arts community. There is an inherited, well-worn mockumentary genre, as well as familiar satirical targets for overzealous and/or pretentious theatrical types. But the real takedown comes from a script that must have seemed much funnier on paper than in practice.

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The 94-minute film “literally came from our desire to do something with our friends,” said Molly Gordon, co-director with her boyfriend Nick Lieberman, after an overrated standing ovation at Sundance. It’s quite apt from what it’s like to watch Theater Camp – a second-hand comedy, as if you’re sitting there exchanging jokes with a group of friends you’re not privy to, with non-original bits that probably kill the audience but fly off the screen.

Written by Gordon, Lieberman and their friends/former Evan Hansens/engaged couple Ben Platt and Noah Galvin, Theater Camp extends 2020 to the group of the same name. As in the original, Platt and Gordon play the naive, over-serious drama camp instructors who are captured by an unseen documentary crew, this time brought to a specially crafted arts camp called AdirondaACTS in upstate. The lakeside community is in turmoil after its cash-strapped matriarch Joan (Amy Sedaris) falls into a strobe-induced coma during a high school play, Bye Bye Birdie; her vlogger son Troy (YouTube star Jimmy Tatro), an exaggerated caricature of a social media hypeman, steps in to “enter the world” of a place that has no knowledge of musical theater whatsoever. (One of the better parts of the film is the camp’s consistent invocation of Joan as a beloved dead spirit while she’s still alive.)

The plot loosely revolves around co-dependent best friends Amos (Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Gordon), their relationship falling apart as they compose an original musical about Joan’s legacy (the film’s best decision, so far, is to show us a few minutes of the completed Joan, Still) and mindless Troy’s attempts to keep this place afloat. There’s a brief subplot involving a ruthless, deadpan board member of the neighboring camp (played by the always hilarious Patti Harrison) who sees an opportunity for expansion, and the general flamboyance of many of the camp’s personalities, including dance instructor Clive (Nathan Lee Graham) and the acerbic costume designer Gigi (Owen Thiele). Galvin stands out from the adult cast by imbuing the spotlight-hungry “third-generation stage manager” with a restless heart that is rewarding in the film’s truly enjoyable, sentimental musical finale. (Ayo Edebiri, playing awkwardly, also steals the spotlight in several scenes as a completely unskilled local hired to cut costs.)

The filmmakers seem to have a warped sense of what will make their film – a promising premise, always ripe for parody – enjoyable. The most glaring example is the format; the mockumentary genre is already overdone, and Theater Camp gets halfway into it in the most unhelpful way – the camera wobbles, the editing is distracting, and shots unnecessarily poke through shutters or door gaps. There are no fourth-wall breakers or talking heads that usually provide zings for this type of setup. The visual language is generally chaotic and sometimes incoherent, but not in a way that emphasizes the fun cacophony of summer camp. The mismatched aesthetic is further confounded by the film’s desaturated color palette for a grainy, muted texture – a choice that undermines rather than amplifies the overabundance of characters and the overall increased intensity of a musical theater camp for highly enthusiastic kids. (For a mockumentary that elevates youth theater campness and is genuinely fun, see High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.)

And for all the power of the stars, I wish the film wasn’t focused on typical self-obsessed adults – I like Gordon as a performer, but there’s nothing new about her parody of the “energy-healing” white woman in the show – but on many talented young actors seemingly delighted to be present and fun to watch. Theater Camp rewards us at least at the end with Joan’s childlike performance, Still, which has all the warm, sincere charm that the previous 80 minutes lacked. Surely the best punchline of Theater Camp is that Joan’s besieged, obviously tasteless production, Still is really good, in a funny, evil, but deeply engaging way. That’s not enough to make up a movie around it, but a good reminder of the intense belonging that drama camp can evoke, and what a self-aware movie about it could be.

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