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'Shaker' drama all off-screen

HBO's Project Greenlight is involving, but the movie that was actually made is anything but.

August 22, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

The tail has been gleefully wagging on HBO for 12 weeks going on 13 and now the dog, in more senses than one, has finally arrived. "The Battle of Shaker Heights," the new Project Greenlight movie, opens in theaters today. To anyone thinking of seeing it the most concise advice would have to be, why bother?

The best thing that can be said about this lethargic coming-of-age tale, noticeably undernourished at 78 minutes, is that it's better than the even more pathetic "Stolen Summer," last year's sacrifice at the altar of what has to be the most satanic devil's bargain the movie business has to offer.

The deal is that Miramax promises a budget of $1 million to the fortunate writer and director of an independent film, the only catch being that a camera crew is around to record your every embarrassing moment during the sure-to-be chaotic shoot and HBO is prepared to broadcast everyone's pain and humiliation to a grateful nation.

For two years running, the result has been remarkable TV that's smarter and considerably more involving week in and week out than the mediocre films that finally result. While it's true that many movies are the products of dazed and confused shoots, that is usually not the intention going in. In Project Greenlight, though no one involved would think of admitting it, it's becoming clear that the level of personal drama the participants are likely to bring to the project is as much of a factor in the selection of winners as any filmmaking skill.

If this were not the case, why pair Erica Beeney, the sensitive writer of a coming-of-age story, with not one but two snarky male directors, Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle. As experienced producer Christine Vachon told the Village Voice, "Why would you go through the agony of the million-dollar movie unless it was a story burning inside you? You inevitably lose something when you separate writer and director."

Given how much humiliation the film's creative personnel have already endured, saying bad things about their flimsy film feels like unnecessary roughness. And the truth is, there's not enough there to get mad at. "Shaker Heights" is more forgettable than objectionable, a feeble retread of adolescent cliches that wastes your time as much as anything else.

The film's best moments are its first ones, when we meet 17-year-old high school senior Kelly Ernswiler (Shia LaBeouf) doing the one thing he loves, taking part in re-created World War II battles.

But this one burst of originality seems to have exhausted screenwriter Beeney, who fills the rest of the film with tired echoes of works that weren't all that memorable in the first place. If you're looking for a low-rent amateurish combination of "Tadpole," "The Good Girl" and "Igby Goes Down," this film has your number.

For who does young Kelly turn out to be but yet another sullen and big-mouthed "I never met a rule I didn't want to break" wisenheimer we're supposed to embrace because he's like secretly sooo sensitive. Like forget about it.

At a simulated battle Kelly meets fellow Shaker Heights teen war fan Bart Bowland (Elden Henson), and the two become fast friends despite Bart's tonier upbringing. It's Bart who helps Kelly plan revenge against the typically puerile Neanderthal bully who makes his life miserable and who introduces his friend to his stunning sister Tabby (Amy Smart).

Even as a fantasy, the potential liaison between a dweeby high school senior and a sophisticated graduate student in art at Yale is so painfully preposterous it's incapable of holding our interest, let alone serving as the dramatic centerpiece of the entire film.

As Project Greenlight fans know, "Shaker Heights" started out with a darker subplot involving Kelly's troubled relationship with his strange parents, a recovered junkie father (William Sadler) and a mother (Kathleen Quinlan) who run a fine arts assembly line out of their home.

The lopping off of that story is the reason "Shaker Heights" is only 78 minutes long, but nothing that remains on screen makes us regret its absence. Even in the abbreviated version we see, it makes an awkward fit with the film's nominally comedic elements.

Star LaBeouf, excellent in "Holes," humanizes this mishmash to a certain extent, but there is only so much anyone can do with a film that so completely lacks a sense of pace or involvement.

Whatever abilities got them this job, co-directors Rankin and Potelle don't demonstrate any connection to or conviction about this material. But, hey, the film's loss is television's gain. The participants may be clueless, but Miramax and friends certainly have their priorities in order.


'The Battle of Shaker Heights'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for language and drug references

Times guidelines: Fairly mild on all counts

Shia LaBoeuf... Kelly Ernswiler

Amy Smart ... Tabby Bowland

Elden Henson ... Bart Bowland

Kathleen Quinlan ... Eve Ernswiler

William Sadler ... Abe Ernswiler

Shiri Appleby ... Sarah

A LivePlanet production, released by Miramax Films. Directors Kyle Rankin & Efram Potelle. Producers Chris Moore, Jeff Balis. Executive producers Ben Affleck, Matt Damon. Screenplay Erica Beeney. Cinematographer Thomas E. Ackerman. Editor Richard Nord. Costumes Bega Metzner. Music Richard Marvin. Production design Lisa K. Sessions. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.

In limited release.

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