Gabriele Muccino is an Italian filmmaker (“The Last Kiss,” “Ecco Fatto”) who had a high-profile moment of going Hollywood. He was handed the plum of directing two Will Smith vehicles in a row, “The Pursuit of Happyness” (2006) and “Seven Pounds” (2007), and he was able to bring his earthy intelligence and humanity to at least one of them. (The less said about “Seven Pounds” the better.) One way to talk about Muccino’s new film, “Summertime,” which premiered tonight at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival, is to say that he is once again an “Italian filmmaker.” But that wouldn’t be quite accurate. “Summertime” is more like an American film embedded in an Italian one.
It’s about Marco (Brando Pacitto), a sulky curly-haired cherub from Rome, and the fussbudget princess Maria (Matilda Lutz), also from Rome, who he doesn’t know well and doesn’t get along with. The two jet off to San Francisco to spend a week in the home of two Americans they barely know at all. Here’s how well they don’t know them: Matt (Taylor Frey), a real-estate broker, and Paul (Joseph Haro), a financial consultant, are loving partners, and when Maria discovers that her hosts are gay, her first reaction is to testily dismiss them as “fags.” (That, according to the movie, is how routine homophobia is in Italy. Even Maria is portrayed as having a “macho” attitude about it.) Matt and Paul don’t take the slur too seriously, which says a lot for them. They can see how blinkered Maria is, but beyond that, both of them are strong, warm people who enjoy their lives. Under their influence, Maria’s kneejerk intolerance starts to melt away in about five minutes.
Other things melt away too, like inhibition. Marco, a glum and rather recessive sort, realizes that he’s got a crush on Maria, and he keeps trying to figure out how to make a play for her, though it’s not really clear what the crush is about beyond naked hormones. They’re travel partners stuck in the same bed, and she looks like a Continental update of Phoebe Cates. In the early scenes, the movie even gives her a pair of owlish spectacles, which she takes off and mysteriously never wears again (until the end), making you think that the whole point of the glasses was simply to give her that 1950s hottie-in-conservative-garb aura.
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Beyond Marco’s fumbling attempts to make a pass, the premise of “Summertime” — two hetero European students staying in the home of two American gay partners — would seem to offer fairly limited opportunities for hooking up. Yet that doesn’t stop Muccino. He’s an honestly sensual filmmaker telling the story of four pretty young things who are grooving on the summertime high of being eager and beautiful and alive.
By far the most interesting of the four is Taylor Frey’s Matt, who looks like an angelic version of Funky Bunch-era Mark Wahlberg, and who’s committed to his life with Paul, but he didn’t get there overnight. Frey is one of those actors who can make serenity — emotional contentment — fascinating, because he communicates the complications beneath. Matt, who is bisexual, could only acknowledge the power of his gayness after he met Paul. When “Summertime” flashes back to that drama, it’s the most riveting sequence in the movie — and an indication that Muccino, if he wanted, could make a terrific mainstream drama about the complexities of gay experience that are too often left on the cutting-room floor of “liberal” Hollywood.
Matt, who grew up in conservative Kansas, was finding a place, and trying to “normalize” himself, when he moved to New Orleans and began to date Paul’s sister. His slow slide over to Paul was tentative, honest, organic — a courageous discovery of who he really was. Yet the damage it caused was tremendous, in no small part because it suddenly put Paul in the position of having to steal the boyfriend…of his sister. “Summertime” contains a coming-out drama of moving complexity. The film flows effortlessly between “gay” and “straight” drama — and part of its message is that the moment you’ve made that distinction, you’ve fallen into the trap of the old bigotry. In 2016, “Love is love” remains a subversive theme.
But if a part of me enjoyed “Summertime,” another part of me kept wishing that Eric Rohmer had made it. There’s one section of the film that deals with Paul deciding to give up the finance career he loathes in order to train horses again; it makes you think that following your career bliss, while an undeniably good idea, is turning into a movie cliché. When it comes to the issue of its commercial prospects, “Summertime” has what looks, at a glance, like a couple of art-house hooks — the gorgeous and talented cast, the way Muccino, at his best, works with sensitivity and intelligence. Yet the movie also has its soft-headed side. There’s never really much at stake. “Summertime” isn’t a bad film, but it’s highly cultivated fluff. It’s just okay enough to make you wish that Muccino would figure out a way to do something grabbier and more audacious with his talent. Like, maybe, going Hollywood again.