Happy Campers

What do Donnie Darko, Wet Hot American Summer, and Ginger Snaps all have in common? In addition to being some of the smartest, funniest, strangest films about young people of the past five years, each was denied the widespread theatrical release granted the likes of National Lampoon's Van Wilder and Whatever It Takes. The directorial debut of Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters, the unexpectedly tender summer-camp comedy Happy Campers joins the aforementioned trio in the too-good-for-mass-release club, although it ought to find an appreciative following on video. A cross between Wet Hot and A Midsummer Night's Dream, Happy Campers returns Waters to the genre of his greatest triumph, following a spell with producer Joel Silver, which produced such big-budget disasters as The Adventures Of Ford Fairlane, Demolition Man, and Hudson Hawk. Taking place over the course of 40 days and nights at Camp Bleeding Dove, Happy Campers stars Brad Renfro, Dominique Swain, Emily Bergl, and James King as camp counselors who are given free rein after the camp's control-freak leader (Peter Stormare) is hit by lightning and rendered catatonic. Inspired comic anarchy ensues, as campers and counselors alike are caught up in a tidal wave of hormones and heightened sensations. Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Elliot Davis (Out Of Sight, Shakes The Clown), who turns the camp into a lush summer wonderland, Happy Campers at first appears to live up (or, rather, down) to the glib irony of its title. The rhythm and pacing of Waters' staccato, oft-profane dialogue here is nearly identical to that of Heathers, but it soon becomes apparent that beneath the film's misanthropic veneer and nasty wit lies a warm heart. For all its charm, Happy Campers is still a bit of a mess. It's full of weird tonal shifts, and it leaves endearing characters frustratingly underdeveloped, while adding others that don't make much sense. Renfro's camp alpha-hunk, for example, oscillates between overachieving good guy and tormented soul, and Renfro lacks the charisma and depth to pull off either extreme. Thankfully, Davis' visual pixie dust adds an almost poetic quality to nearly every scene, accentuating Waters' strengths and obscuring his weaknesses. It's taken more than a decade and a stint in a high-concept dungeon, but in Happy Campers, Waters finally delivers a worthy follow-up to Heathers.

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