- The Washington Times - Friday, May 10, 2002

The Miramax beau geste "Stolen Summer," which inaugurated the so-called Project Greenlight to encourage aspiring screenwriters and directors, makes a point of fostering heartfelt bonds between a large Catholic family in Chicago, circa 1976, and a rabbi whose only son is imperiled by leukemia. Clearly, it's time for besieged nonbelievers to alert the media to an insidious trend.
The amusing thing, of course, would be to see a movie as modestly budgeted and decently motivated as "Stolen Summer" outdraw such competition as "Unfaithful," a posh potboiler about adultery and murder, or "The New Guy," a predictably raunchy high school farce, at the box office. There is still no indication that conventional piety is about to overwhelm spectacle, vice or slapstick as an inducement to moviegoing. However, the compassionate aspects of "Stolen Summer" are difficult to resist. If the thought of interfaith good will appeals to you, this is not an overture to scorn.
Although made on a slim budget, the movie has had plenty of advance publicity a 13-part documentary miniseries on Home Box Office. Under the auspices of Miramax and Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, whose sleeper "Good Will Hunting" was a considerable success for the company, a scheme was devised to solicit unproduced screenplays and select one for production.
Pete Jones' "Stolen Summer" was winnowed from 250 eligible scripts. A documentary crew observed the movie's filming, in sometimes intriguing but also overblown detail, with the result last fall and winter being the 13 episodes of HBO's "Project Greenlight."
On its merits, Mr. Jones' movie ought to justify a continuation of the Greenlight talent search or something comparable. The obvious hitch is that the chosen feature remains at a curious anticlimactic disadvantage, its behind-the-scenes laundry having been displayed conspicuously on "Project Greenlight" before anyone got a decisive look at the movie itself.
Quite a bit of credible bad-mouthing has preceded "Stolen Summer" into release perhaps enough to discourage people who actually might like what they find.
Mr. Jones seemed a sweetheart on the television series, and the movie seems an authentic reflection of his personality and outlook. Aidan Quinn, who plays Joe O'Malley, the father of the Catholic family, has joked that he found Mr. Jones "so likable that it's sickening."
The movie clarifies that quip in several ways, most of them still flattering to the filmmaker. While recognizing the gauche shortcomings in Mr. Jones' approach to inspirational storytelling and the absence of flashiness in his bag of tricks, one nevertheless is convinced that he's a humorist whose good heart is worthy of trust until further notice.
Evidently, Mr. Jones is harking back to a Catholic childhood of his own. There's a familiarity in the family scenes and in the recollections of how an Irish Catholic upbringing stimulates both fervor and confusion in the mind of a bright, outgoing 8-year-old boy that rings true.
One of the inside jokes of the casting is that Adi Stein, the boy cast as Mr. Jones' alter ego, Pete O'Malley, is actually the son of a rabbi. He becomes a summer preoccupation for Kevin Pollak as a rabbi named Jacobson who tolerates the boy's initial, wrongheaded notion that it might be worthwhile to seek converts among the Jews.
Eventually, the rabbi and his wife (Lisa Dodson) have reason to be thankful that Pete and their only child, 7-year-old Danny (Mike Weinberg), cement an oddball friendship, which begins to suggest an urban update of the bond between backwoods kids in "The Yearling."
Mr. Jones enjoys terrific rapport with Mr. Quinn and Bonnie Hunt, also Chicago natives, as the O'Malleys, who have eight children. Mr. Jones doesn't seem as confident inside the Weinberg family circle, but Mr. Pollak is wonderful in the scenes of interaction with one O'Malley or another for example, when he parries and gently corrects the friendly ignorance of Pete, or when he refuses to be intimidated by the stubborn pride and ingrained prejudice that can well up in the otherwise admirable Joe, exposing a potential bully and bigot.
It's impossible to know whether Mr. Jones can extend his command of straightforward, naturalistic impressions beyond the comedy and pathos of family life of a fundamentally secure, reassuring, autobiographical kind. For the time being, it's sufficient to welcome "Stolen Summer" as a genial introduction to a filmmaker who definitely has a common touch and may prove dexterous enough to prevent it from decaying into a stale common touch.

**1/2
TITLE: "Stolen Summer"
RATING: PG (Fleeting profanity; episodes of family conflict and tragedy)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Pete Jones.
RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes


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