Following the disappointment of his last pic, “Babyfever,” Henry Jaglom takes a big step forward in “Last Summer in the Hamptons,” a mildly amusing comedy of manners that evokes the spirit, if not the accomplishment, of Chekhov, Renoir and, most specifically, Woody Allen. A large, extraordinary cast of mostly eccentric performers almost overcomes the trappings of familiar ideas, making Jaglom’s 11th film one of his more pleasing outings, and passably commercial.
In the wake of the feminist docudramas “Eating” and “Babyfever,” the good news is that the longtime indie auteur has gone back to his previous mode of making personal, whimsical, if often slight, comedies about contempo issues and relationships.
Chekhovian in mood as well as texture, story is set in a lush East Hampton estate and concerns three generations of a large, narcissistic theatrical family , headed by powerful matriarch Helena (Viveca Lindfors). The group is more a commune than a biological family, as it includes students and friends, all mobilizing their creative energies for the annual summer production. Jaglom borrows from “The Cherry Orchard” the notion that this is the last summer together at the decades-old retreat: Dire economic circumstances are forcing Helena to sell the cherished property.
The usual comic and not-so-comic shenanigans are exacerbated by the arrival of Oona (Victoria Foyt), a young Hollywood star whose unexpected visit wreaks havoc on almost every member of the family. She’s presented as a beautiful, rather naive and insccure actress, facing both personal and professional crises. Intrigued by the magic of live theater, she wants to become a serious, even legendary actress, but, listening to the family members, she becomes aware of one of the avant-garde’s paradoxical problems: “jealousy of commercial success.”
There are some big gatherings with everyone present, but most of the film consists of intimate encounters in which the characters bare their hearts and reveal their dreams and frustrations. The colorful individuals wander around the house, expressing their romantic angst in the manner of a minor Allen film — more “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy” than “Manhattan.”
Part of the fun lies in contrasting the performers’ real lives with those depicted onscreen. Basically reflecting on her own career, the still-ravishing Lindfors is enchanting in her monologues on why she left Hollywood and returned to the New York stage, Playing a legendary directory, Andre Gregory is seen executing mental and physical exercises onstage with Brooke Smith, who, unfortunately, is given nothing interesting to do or say.
After 40 minutes or so, pic begins to lose steam and become repetitious. Unlike Allen, Jaglom is not adept in alternating the comic with the more serious; there’s a good deal of discomfort when some of the family’s dirty laundry is aired.
Magnetic acting helps compensate for the lack of insightful originality in the script, co-written by Jaglom and his wife and leading lady, Foyt. Totally commanding the screen, Lindfors and Gregory shine throughout — one wishes the camera lingered on them rather than constantly cutting away to the lesser subplots.
It’s still hard to tell how talented the appealing Foyt is, for she’s playing a variant of her role in “Babyfever,” Jon Robin Baitz has some good moments as a gay playwright, and so do Melissa Leo, as his troubled sister, and Nick Gregory, as an opportunistic stud. But one wishes Martha Plimpton would stop playing her specialty, foul-mouthed tomboys, and that Roddy McDowall and Roscoe Lee Browne were more fully used here.
Polished production values make pic an agreeable experience even in its tedious moments.