All the family's a stage in 'Hamptons'

April 05, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

The best thing about Henry Jaglom's "Last Summer in the Hamptons" is that it's not about Henry Jaglom. The worst thing about it is that Jaglom, ever the clown prince of narcissism, cannot keep himself out of it and gives himself a nice, fat, utterly unprofessional character part at the three-quarters point. Time for a bathroom break.

When I returned, he had helpfully returned to his place on the other side of the camera and the movie progressed more or less blissfully to its conclusion. It's his best film, by far, the most solid and most professional and most resonant.

The subject is twofold: theater and family. Although in the case of the crazed Moras, family is theater and vice versa. The clan is ruled, somewhat inefficiently, by Helena (the late Viveca Lindfors), an ex-'40s movie star (as was Lindfors) who has moved east, bought a Hamptons mansion that she's turned into a combination drama department and family counseling service for her immense brood, their wives, their children, all of whom come together once a year to drink, cheat and plot against each other. All make a living, somehow, off the theater, what one of them calls "the family scam."

The movie, playing locally at the Charles, is given poignancy by the fact that it chronicles a last gathering, as all the family members know that Helena must sell the place and she is in the process of sorting through her things to make it easier (on your Chekhov check-off list, check off that one as the biggest Chekhov allusion, "Cherry-Orchard"-wise). But there's a double meaning here, for in hindsight we are watching Lindfors preparing to die and rob the world -- and the movie -- of its powerful source of energy, her own charisma.

What makes the plot work is that two people, one a guest, the other a family member, have something that everybody else wants except the old woman, and the movie is a cynical view of family process as treasure hunt. Young Jake (Jon Robin Baitz) is a successful playwright with a new text that will make whoever plays it an even bigger star; meanwhile, one daughter's guest, Oona Hart (Victoria Foyt, co-screenwriter and Mrs. Henry Jaglom), is a popular movie star embarrassed by her fame and wealth, curious about "real" theater people, yet far more powerful in the business than any of them can ever hope to be. (The movie is in some sense Jaglom's affectionate rebuke to a theater culture that considers itself artistically superior to the movies, but desperately envies the movies' power and audience.)

So it goes, wittily, casually and giddily, like an improvisation by Robert Altman on a text by Chekhov's grandson, who is trying to get an ICM agent, while the cast itself -- isn't this a joke? -- is also full of real family members, such as Kris Tabori as one of Helena's sons, when he is one of Viveca Lindfor's sons. Andre Gregory appears, charming as always; his son Nick is also there, far less charming than the old man, as an opportunistic hustler. Baitz, who in real life is a playwright, is obnoxious and smug; Melissa Leo, of "Homicide," gets a nice neurotic turn as his sister, always frustrated by his beauty.

Foyt is quite funny, particularly when she tries to do "acting exercises" to achieve the respect of an avant-garde that only wants to share in her Hollywood clout. But the real star is Lindfors, and it's a privilege to watch this legend playing a version of herself and commenting acidly on her own career in the movies and her co-stars, Ronald Reagan and Errol Flynn. Now that's showbiz.

'Last Summer in the Hamptons'

Starring Viveca Lindfors and Victoria Foyt

Directed by Henry Jaglom

Released by Rainbow Films

Unrated (sexual material)

Sun score ***

Pub Date: 4/05/96

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