“When you’re 17, every day is war.” — Tagline of The Battle of Shaker Heights (2003)
Anyone here remember Project Greenlight? It’s a show that used to be on HBO and Bravo, in which Matt Damon and Ben Affleck would arrange for a director and screenwriter to get a chance to make their low budget feature film debuts. The catch, of course, is that a camera crew would then follow the director as he (and all of the Greenlight “winners” were male) struggled to get the film made. Mistakes would be made. Money would be wasted. Producer Chris Moore would randomly show up on set and start yelling. In short, it was typical reality show drama with the catch being that the film itself would then be released in a theater or two.
Well, after being consigned to footnote status for the past nine years. Project Greenlight is coming back for a fourth season and a lot of people are pretty excited about it. And why not? I own the first two seasons of Project Greenlight on DVD and I’ve watched the third season on YouTube. It’s a lot of fun, mostly because all of the directors, with the exception of season 3 winner John Gulager, turned out to be so incredibly inept. (Gulager is one of the few Project Greenlight success stories — not only did his movie, Feast, come across as being made by a professional but he’s actually had a career post-Greenlight.) It all makes for good televised drama.
However, it doesn’t necessarily make for a good movie.
Case in point: 2003’s The Battle of Shaker Heights.
The Battle of Shaker Heights is about a creepy 17 year-old named Kelly (played by the reliably creepy Shia LaBeouf). His mother (Kathleen Quinlan) is an artist. His father (William Sadler) is a former drug addict who, despite having been clean for 6 years, still has to deal with his son’s constant resentment. Kelly is a high school outcast who spends all of his spare time thinking and talking about war. Every weekend, he takes part in war reenactments. At night, he works in a 24-hour grocery store where he doesn’t realize that he’s the object of Sarah’s (Shiri Appleby) affection.
(Why Sarah has so much affection for Kelly is a good question. Maybe it’s the scene where he throws cans of cat food at her…)
At a reenactment of the Battle of the Bulge, Kelly meets and befriends Bart (Elden Hansen), which leads to him meeting Bart’s older sister, Tabby (Amy Smart). Tabby is an artist, because the film isn’t imaginative enough to make her anything else. (We’re also told that she’s a talented artist and it’s a good thing that we’re told this because otherwise, we might notice that her paintings are the type of uninspired stuff that you can buy at any county art fair.) Kelly decides that he’s in love with Tabby but — uh oh! — Tabby’s getting married. Naturally, she’s marrying a guy named Minor (Anson Mount). Imagine how the film would have been different if his name had been Major.
As a film, the Battle of Shaker Heights is a bit of a mess. It never establishes a consistent tone, the dialogue and the direction are all way too heavy-handed and on the nose, and Shia LaBeouf … well, he remains Shia LaBeouf. In some ways, Shia is actually pretty well cast in this film. He’s an off-putting actor playing an off-putting characters but the end of result is an off-putting film.
Of course, if you’ve seen the second season of Project Greenlight, then you know that The Battle of Shaker Heights had an incredibly troubled production. Neither one of the film’s two directors were particularly comfortable with dealing with the more low-key human aspects of the story. Screenwriter Erica Beeney was not happy with who was selected to direct her script and basically spent the entire production whining about it to anyone who would listen. (Sorry, Erica — your script was one of the film’s biggest problems. When you actually give a character a name like Minor Webber, it means you’re not trying hard enough.) Finally, Miramax took the completed film away from the directors and re-edited it, removing all of the dramatic scenes and basically leaving a 79-minute comedic cartoon.
So, in the end, Battle of Shaker Heights is not a very good film. But season two of Project Greenlight is a lot of fun!