As those of us who watched the second season of the “Project Greenlight” series know, the real battle of “Shaker Heights” was fought not on screen but in the editing room, where neophyte directors Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle were compelled by pressure from the Miramax marketing team to tone down their movie’s dramatic elements and play up its comedic ones. The power struggle between creative freedom and corporate decision-making was but the last element in a process that had already radically altered the script by Erica Beeney that won the Greenlight contest in a field of 7,000 submissions. Watching the process play itself out, courtesy of the HBO cameras, was fascinating. It lacked the catastrophic dimensions of the first season, which focused on the making of the all-too-clearly doomed “Stolen Summer,” but in its quieter way it was more interesting, because the outcome was more in doubt.
What’s the result? Happily, “The Battle of Shaker Heights” is a more professional product than “Summer” was. It’s structurally ragged and tonally shaky, if you’ll pardon the pun–but one could have predicted that from the rushed shooting schedule and frantic post-production process. It’s also half-hearted, proving soft and flabby beneath a purportedly edgy exterior. But though slight and rather frail, it’s still modestly entertaining, a near-miss rather than an outright flop. The script possesses a fair percentage of clever lines, Rankin and Potelle do a slick if not terribly stylish job, the technical contributions are adequate, and the running-time mercifully (some would say absurdly) brief. Best of all, it’s blessed with a solid cast, and in particular an engaging lead performance. Shia LaBeouf proves that his turn in “Holes” was no fluke: he makes protagonist Kelly Ernsweiler, a low-rent Holden Caulfield type with loads of teen angst and an abrasive smart-aleck streak, a charmingly disheveled kid, whose nervy precociousness is somehow endearing rather than irritating. With someone else in the part, Kelly might well have become insufferable even over this picture’s mere 78 minutes; but LaBeouf not only compels your attention but retains your sympathy even when you find the character’s behavior trying or ridiculous.
Kelly is a nerdy, wisecracking seventeen-year old with an unhappy home life: his mother (Kathleen Quinlan) is a painter of dubious skill who turns out canvases for “starving artist” sales, and his father (William Sadler) a recovering drug addict whom the boy bitterly blames for his past years of inattention and wastrel’s ways. Kelly’s obsessive outlet is participating in the re-enactment of military battles, a pastime that makes him contemptuous of his mediocre history teacher and an object of bullying by the teacher’s hotshot son Lance (Billy Kay). But his hobby wins him a friend in fellow re-enactor Bart (Elden Henson), who’s from a rich Shaker Heights family, and together they mount a complicated act of revenge against Lance. Kelly also falls for Elden’s older sister Tabby (Amy Smart), and dreams that she’ll break off her engagement to a handsome nonentity (Anson Mount) in favor of him. One can guess miles ahead what’s going to emerge from all this. Kelly will reconnect with his parents, overcoming his anger toward his father during a time of family crisis; he’ll accept the pointlessness if his feud with Lance; and he’ll comes to terms with the impossibility of going off into the sunset with Tabby, finally recognizing the absolute rightness of linking up instead with Sarah (Shiri Appleby), the sweet fellow grocery-store worker and classmate who’s been pining after him unnoticed for months. It would have been nice if one’s expectations had been disappointed in one or another of these areas. Sadly, that is not to be.
There are a great many problems with “Shaker Heights.” The overarching conceit of the picture–a kid who participates in mock battles battling toward maturity–is more than a bit precious, and a good many of its elements have a John Hughesy quality to them. The shifts in tone between comedy and melodrama aren’t adroitly handled, either, particularly in the latter reels. (Even within individual scenes, the twists are sometimes forced. In one episode, Kelly starts out drunk, suddenly seems to sober up, and then is abruptly out of it again.) Still, the picture nearly overcomes the hurdles even though it can’t escape predictability. LaBeouf is the main reason: he brings intelligence and charm to scenes that could easily have set one’s teeth on edge. He’s especially winning when playing against Henson and Appleby, both of whom are excellent. Ray Wise also contributes an amusing turn as Bart’s dad; a sequence in which he enthuses over his latest hobby–collecting nesting-dolls–is delightful, though another–a dinner episode–is clumsy. The domestic side of Kelly’s life, unfortunately, is less effectively handled. Quinlan and Sadler are fine, but their characters aren’t fleshed out fully enough to be compelling. (The decision to emphasize comedy over drama in the final cut obviously has a good deal to do with that.) Another problem is that though Smart is very attractive, the supposed electricity between Tabby and Kelly never takes hold. And all the material involving Lance is much too broad: Kay, who was so effective in “L.I.E.,” is a caricature here. The upshot is that while parts of the film have a modest charm (and LaBeouf is well worth watching throughout), as a whole it comes across as lumpish and squishy. If one were to rewrite things completely, he might suggest that a harsher, unsentimental approach, rigorously maintained throughout, would have resulted in a much better, more challenging piece.
But that’s not what “The Battle of Shaker Heights” was ever meant to be, as a reading of the original script (available on the Project Greenlight website) attests; the picture is no bastardization of a masterpiece. One of the best things about the whole enterprise, in fact, is that it allows a comparison of the original screenplay with what emerged after all the rewriting and revision depicted in the series. For this viewer, at least, most of the changes are defensible, and in some cases clearly beneficial. A lot of the deleted material was extraneous, and many of the new bits are improvements, even if they don’t always play perfectly. (See, for instance, Wise’s big solo moment, or the episode involving the revenge on Lance, which is better in the film than in the script, though still not quite worked out.) Beeney would probably disagree, but it’s doubtful that a straight filming of her work would have been preferable to this, even if the finished product remains seriously flawed. Of course, one of the pleasures of the whole Greenlight operation is that it affords the opportunity to debate such matters. One thing is sure, though: she could hardly have asked for a better Kelly than LaBeouf, changes or no.