Early in Barbara Kopple’s new docu miniseries “The Hamptons,” writer Steven Gaines complains the summer playground of the title has come to be known as “Hollywood East.” He implies this is a very bad thing. What Kopple has done to the resort isn’t any better, at least in the eyes of your average Hamptonite: She has turned Long Island’s network of picturesque beachside villages into Los Angeles East via a soporific four-hour, two-part docu.
No one would expect a cohesive documentary of this length to cover the many towns and neighborhoods that comprise L.A., and Kopple hasn’t exactly delivered one on Quogue, Sag Harbor, Bridgehampton, Southampton, Montauk Point and those several other quaint in-between places. Just as myopic New Yorkers pride themselves in thinking of Los Angeles as one big mush pie, anyone unfamiliar with the east end of Long Island will receive a similarly amorphous impression of these famous vacation spots from Kopple’s work.
What’s the Oscar-winning documentarian up to here? The same old city-vs.-country rant, albeit a strangely muted one for Kopple’s talents. As one longtime fisherman puts it, “People come here for the beauty. But they come in such numbers they destroy the very thing they come for. … And they gradually change it to where they came from.”
Maybe Kopple wanted to tell one of her classic tales of class warfare, but unlike her very focused, infinitely grittier docus on strikes by coal miners (“Harlan County, U.S.A.”) and meat packers (“American Dream”), she got stymied in her dubious quest to film each and every social stratum of the Hamptons. No thank you, said the Old Guard, who made sure to stop her cameras from invading such restricted monied enclaves as the Meadow Club and the Bathing Corp. Also, the Hamptons’ sizable gay population may not be as liberated and ready for exposure as heretofore expected; Kopple obtains no footage of their bars, sharehouses or beaches.
Fashion designer Eric Gaskins does introduce his lover of 15 years, Anton Bronner, whose career apparently consists of entertaining his lover’s relatives. To credit Kopple’s interviewer prowess, Gaskins’ description of first meeting Bonner, complete with every article of Armani his future boyfriend wore that day, recalls the inspired Starbucks/L.L. Bean meet-cute reminiscences of Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock in “Best in Show.” Gaines, author of “Philistines at the Hedgerow: Passion and Property in the Hamptons,” obliquely refers to “if I were straight.” Otherwise, he busies himself with caring for his dog, Robbie, who is dying of “cognitive dysfunctional disease” (doggie Alzheimer’s), which has sent him to an “animal-grief therapist.”
Since Gaines obviously knows this territory a lot better than Kopple, she uses him as her unofficial tour guide to get his saucy take on everything from Candace Bushnell’s book party for “4 Blondes” to what defines a Hamptons “trophy guest.” Gaines says Gwyneth Paltrow qualifies as one, but Margaret Thatcher does not, because “you can’t sell photos of her at your house.”
Gaines is a veritable quote machine and he takes attention away from the fishermen, farmers and local moms, which may not be what Kopple had in mind. She occasionally skewers the nouveau riche, but at least they give back some memorable phrase or anecdote worth recording. The babble of the less affluent year-round residents simply turns into so much TV commercial static.
Elsewhere, this socially committed filmmaker can’t resist filming every celeb under the Hamptons sun and neon: Alec Baldwin, Julian Schnabel, Russell Simmons, Francesco Scavullo, Chevy Chase, James Lipton.
One of the leitmotifs is the recurring figure of former supermodel Christie Brinkley. Kopple’s reportage here recalls those old Life magazine photo layouts of the fading celebrity who allows access to her child (in this case, daughter Sailor Lee’s birthday party, at which several 3-year-olds play musical chairs endlessly) in exchange for a plug of her favorite charity (in this case, the STAR Foundation). On a supposedly typical afternoon, Brinkley and current husband Peter Cook travel the waterways to warn unsuspecting boaters away from the local seaside nuclear power plant. Later on, ex-spouse Billy Joel performs at her fund-raiser, with Brinkley giving us a photo-op backstage tour.
Another storyline follows the young and blond-as-Brinkley investment banker Angela Barber on her first summer to the Hamptons, where she lands in the sharehouse of Cliff and Kira Friedman, whose entourage of New Yorkers includes lawyer Jacqueline Lipson, who lets it be known over Memorial Day weekend, “I will have a boyfriend in September. I told my father to start saving!” (Amateurs are prone to overact for the camera.)
Barber is welcomed into this party-hearty enclave by being berated for hailing from Oregon. Or is it Iowa or Idaho? Those native New Yorkers are never quite sure of anything west of the Hudson.
Kopple had the good luck to record the Hamptons the summer Lizzie Grubman’s Mercedes SUV allegedly backed over 16 people at Conscience Point Inn on July 4. As defining moments go, what documentarian could ask for anything more except, of course, even better timing? Too bad Kopple and crew weren’t hanging out with the police the night Grubman’s vehicle went berserk. Instead, the filmmaker gets stuck doing police rounds when the evening’s big arrest is a 14-year-old trespassing through some old couple’s back yard.