A correction was made to this review on August 28, 2003.
Project Greenlight winners — last year’s “Stolen Summer” and this year’s “The Battle of Shaker Heights” — suggest the HBO sponsored-program, which documents projects through development and production stages, should perhaps be renamed Project Lite. Both pics end up wearing their hearts on their sleeves, and while “Shaker Heights” contains more wit and sarcasm than the first project, 17-year-old anti-hero Kelly Ernswiler — the kind of eccentric Hal Ashby would have used deviously 30 years ago — has turned into a softie. Theatrical run seems unlikely for movie fundamentally suited for small-screen video.
Although Erica Beeney’s script beat out more than 7,000 entries, the screen version dulls her potentially distinctive voice with deadly doses of sentimentality. The “life lessons” end up feeling all wrong for the tale of a born subversive.
An avowed rule-breaker whose interest in participating in war reenactments is the movie’s best and least explored idea, Kelly (Shia LaBeouf) has the kind of frightening intelligence no adult in his upper-middle-class Cleveland neighborhood of Shaker Heights has any idea how to channel.
But Kelly isn’t just odd, he’s oddly conceived. He asks his history teacher, “Why don’t you ever talk about the Draft Riots?” — which plays less as a character detail than as a nod to Miramax’s own “Gangs of New York.” Such questions get Kelly pushed around by the teacher’s bullying son Lance (Billy Kay), even though Kelly displayed some pretty warlike behavior in the cleverly staged opening scene.
Formula kicks in when Kelly gains a nice friend in rich-kid Bart (Elden Henson), whose father (Ray Wise) has put aside amassing war memorabilia, and now for collects Russian nesting dolls. Kelly also begins to fall for Bart’s sister, the awkwardly named Tabby (Amy Smart), who is engaged to a cool-looking dude named Miner..
As for his own family, Kelly quietly hates his jobless ex-junkie dad (William Sadler) and battles with his mother Eve (Kathleen Quinlan) over dad’s continued presence in their lives.
The nearest thing to an authentically developed relationship in “The Battle of Shaker Heights” is the interplay at a supermarket where Kelly works as a stock clerk while chumming around with checkout clerk Sarah (Shiri Appleby). Unlike the production’s poor attempt at shooting Cleveland in L.A. (looking particularly misguided next to “American Splendor,” where the real Cleveland plays a starring role), the market setting has the kind of stultifying flatness “Splendor’s” Harvey Pekar would be at home in, and which seems the ideal place for Kelly and Sarah to muse about life.
Third-act turnarounds linking every major character like a rote screenwriting exercise sink a movie which would have greatly benefited from throwing narrative caution to the wind and staying true to Kelly’s odd-duck nature.
Direction, shared by Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle (who have collaborated on several previous shorts), is just as rote, but their one ace is LaBeouf, whose brain seems to be visibly whirring, and who shows a charming tendency to be able to bring out his inner Charlie Chaplin and Dustin Hoffman. Appleby provides a warm counterpart, and the remaining cast is suitable if not memorable.
Quickie nature of Project Greenlight’s moviemaking practice results in thin visuals better suited for TV. Pic’s bantamweight profile is underlined by an actual playing time (excluding credits) of 73 minutes.