'Camp Nowhere': good-hearted attempt

August 27, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Bearing the stigmata of the unpreviewed film -- a dead give-away that the studio doesn't give a hoot -- "Camp Nowhere" sneaks into town with at least one advantage: no one seeing it has any expectations whatsoever.

That helps. The film isn't a dog; it's a mild little puppy that now and then uncorks an amusing surprise. It's best thing is a star who seems to have fallen from grace, but who nevertheless is one of those persistently amusing personalities -- the zany, the irrepressible, the anarchistic Christopher Lloyd.

You hate him? Fine. I love him. Lloyd is almost always watchable, with a mock-handsome face, an utter disregard for dignity, a sense of dementedness coursing through his line readings, and eyes that speak of a different perception of reality. He's perfectly cast here, in a movie with a neat premise that goes sadly unrealized.

Lloyd plays a defrocked drama teacher named Dennis Van Welker who is approached by a gaggle of oppressed suburban kids with a unique proposition. Each of them is a camp victim: that is, each one's yuppie parents have insisted upon sending him or her for the summer to some career-oriented camp in order to turn the kids into perfect replicas of themselves.

The kids have come up with a counter idea: he is to represent himself to the parents as the fantasy camp counselor of their dreams and get the kids shipped to his establishment, which does not exist. The kids will go up in the woods and mess around merrily for six weeks; Dennis will get a thousand bucks a head.

Of course, the thing snowballs and Lloyd finds himself parked on a lake with about a hundred of them who, with their parents' money at their disposal, turn the encampment into a paradise of CD players, expensive water guns, fireworks, electric guitars and so on, and party hearty. Meanwhile, he rusticates across the water, trying to run a romance with a woman doctor who, like so many doctors these days, wears a shirt cut off to display her navel.

The movie is certainly chipper and good-hearted. It assiduously avoids any of the pathologies of early adolescent years, like sexual activity or drug usage, and it certainly avoids the deeper possibilities of the situation -- it's no "Lord of the Flies" goes to camp. Left on their own, the kids don't devolve into savages but into something far more unrealistic: really nice boys and girls.

But, aside from some neat riffs by Lloyd, the comedy isn't consistent. I mean, how funny are mud-pie fights? It peters out particularly toward the end, where the kids have to reconfigure Camp Nowhere into Camp Somewhere in 36 hours when their parents decide to arrive en masse. Director Jonathan Prince keeps it all pretty tidy and harmless; there's no sense of mania under the surface.

Jonathan Jackson is the smartest of the kids, and he bonds nicely with Lloyd; but none of the other kids have much edge or individuality. Neither, come to think of it, does the movie.

MOVIE REVIEW

"Camp Nowhere"

Starring Christopher Lloyd and Jonathan Jackson

Directed by Jonathan Prince

Released by Hollywood Pictures

Rated PG

... **

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