Daily Archives: September 9, 2003

The Battle of Shaker Heights (2003)

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, being the egalitarian champions we all know celebrities to be, started a contest called Project Greenlight that allowed aspiring screenwriters to enter for a chance to have the winning script made into a movie by Miramax and the process documented for a behind the scenes reality show to run on HBO. Project Greenlight‘s first winner was the hapless Pete Jones. His winning screenplay gave birth to Stolen Summer, a maudlin coming-of-age story about a Catholic boy trying to get his ailing Jewish friend into heaven. You can feel the grating precociousness already. While Stolen Summer was an artistic yawn the HBO series was a hit as we the viewers saw every stupid mistake, naïve decision, and screaming matches during the production. Pete Jones’’ pain was our gain.

Unlike the first contest, this one had a separate entry for directors and the tag-team of Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankin were picked to direct the winning screenplay The Battle of Shaker Heights, by Columbus, Ohio (represent) grad student Erica Beeny. Project Greenlight on HBO showcased the tension created by these butting heads. Beeny seemed ready to meltdown at a moment’s notice, probably because she let her good nature be taken advantage of by the egotistical, passive-aggressive, non-communicative, hilariously self-absorbed directors. This raises the question; did Affleck and Damon pick the best people or the people most likely to create the best television?

Once again, the winning screenplay involved a coming-of-age story, this time revolving around the life of Kelly (Shia LeBeouf), a glib teenage war re-enactor. Kelly befriends Bart (Elden Henson) during a battle reenactment. Bart is from a wealthy Wasp-y household where his college is already predetermined. Kelly, on the other hand, must sullenly deal with his father (William Sadler), a former junkie who wasted away his college fund, and his flighty mother (Kathleen Quinlan). Bart and Kelly scheme to teach a schoolyard bully a lesson, and in the process Kelly starts falling for Bart’’s attractive older sister Tabby (Amy Smart).

The character of Kelly doesn”’t seem to have any deep reflections of life or anything of substance, just wicked one-liners. The fact that Kelly comes off as a sympathetic hero goes fully to the charming LeBeouf, who displays a laid back sense of humor and allure that is reminiscent of a young John Cusack. LeBeouf gives a star-making performance that keeps the audience engaged, even if the story is turning them off.

One of several problems Shaker Heights suffers from is that the finished product is a one-man show. Kelly is such a dominating character, a whirlwind of misplaced rage that everyone that gets in his path suffers. His relationship with Tabby seems like nothing more than unrequited puppy love that doesn’’t need so much screen time being spent on a tired “will they or won’t they” diversion. Kelly’’s parents come off like they’re invisible. If you blink you may miss their entire time on screen. The father is more an absent force to drive Kelly’s angst, while his mother doesn’’t seem to have any purpose or influence whatsoever.

Shaker Heights feels like a film made by committee because –as Project Greenlight astutely documented– it was made by a committee. Miramax executives decided they could sell the film better as a pure comedy so they removed most of the winning screenplay’s drama. So now, with this new incarnation of Shaker Heights, the comedy never really emerges from more than a handful of superficially cute lines, and whenever a bit of drama does emerge it seems alien and disorienting. The heavy-handed direction by Potelle and Rankin paints in broad strokes, so the dramatic efforts come off as forced and overblown when they sneak up on an audience.

This incarnation of the movie may be entertaining to some, but with these cuts and directorial choices Shaker Heights seems horribly ordinary. Kelly is a disaffected teen with smart-ass comments; he lusts after the older girl who, of course, is with a supposed loser; his parents just don’t know what to do with him. The story is dulled down and all the edges seem polished off, and what an audience is left with is scenes, characters, and a story we’re already well familiar with. Does Project Greenlight seem to have a desire to select coming-of-age stories and then water them down to the point of distilling any original voice? The only interesting diversion in Shaker Heights is the war reenactment section, which is tragically too short.

The Battle of Shaker Heights is another theatrical dud from the Project Greenlight crew. Fans of teen melodrama might get some moderate enjoyment from it, but realistically, the only people who are going to pay any sort of money to see Shaker Heights are the people who avidly followed the Project Greenlight TV series. And in the end, one can’t shake the feeling that The Battle of Shaker Heights ultimately feels like a disappointing season finale to Project Greenlight.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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