We're two movies into Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's Project Greenlight, and I'm ready to call the experiment a success. At what, I'm still not sure. The behind-the-scenes antics captured each week for the multi-part HBO series provide an unprecedented insight into a movie's arduous journey from script to screen. Week to week, it provides excellent reality television.
But the end results - from Stolen Summer to this year's The Battle of Shaker Heights - haven't proven strong enough to separate themselves from the series. They struggle to stand on their own two independent feet.
Here's a little backstory for our non-cable subscribers. The bastard child of HBO's marketing department and Miramax's open wallet, P.G. allows the stars of Gigli and The Legend of Bagger Vance to select what they consider to be a worthy screenplay out of a pool of thousands. Perhaps that's the first mistake. This season, P.G. paired the winning script with separate directors, then rewarded the creative team with a hefty $2 million budget.
P.G.'s latest spawn, the pleasant Shaker Heights, was conceived by screenwriter Erica Beeney and directed by Kyle Rankin and Ephram Potelle. A true group effort, it's perfectly enjoyable without being remarkable, a solid endeavor by a first-time writer and rookie directing team. The sweet coming-of-age saga pits high schooler Kelly (Shia LaBeouf) against the world, which is just the way the frequent war re-enactor likes it. He's perpetually picked on by the school bully, fosters a crush on his best friend's older sister (Amy Smart), and can't come to terms with his hippie mother (Kathleen Quinlan) and druggie dad (William Sadler).
Shaker Heights is a showcase for LaBeouf's charms. His performance calls to mind early John Cusack, from the days of Better Off Dead and The Sure Thing. Co-star Smart occasionally registers with the audience. She's just hot enough to pull off the "unattainable fantasy" the screenplay requires her to be. But LaBeouf's personality ultimately outshines every other aspect of the project.
And that's the main dilemma. The best parts of Shaker Heights still don't hold a candle to the weekly episodes of the show that documented it. Precious few elements of the movie will feel original if you followed Greenlight religiously, which is part of the concept's inherent flaws. Because we viewed Kyle and Ephram's directorial submission, we know going into Shaker Heights that they're capable of broad visual gags, so we're disappointed when they fail to attempt anything visually stimulating here. Shaker is laid out in a point-and-shoot style. The most impressive technical aspect is a scene shot outside of a church in the evening that's lit to look like it's set in the middle of the afternoon. Again, I wouldn't know that without having watched the show.
To date, HBO's the real winner. They get a quality television program that's part reality, part fiction, and totally entertaining. Miramax's theatrical output is improving, for sure, but they're still two or three projects away from greenlighting a movie that will recoup the money they have to upfront for the process to get off the ground.
You can get Shaker on its own or with the full Greenlight series on DVD. The former includes a gag reel, deleted scenes, and commentary from the directors. The latter adds the entire 13 episode TV series on two discs, which adds about half an hour of deleted scenes and outtakes from the tryout videos.
Shake and bake.