‘Summertime’ (‘L’Estate addosso’): Venice Review

Director Gabriele Muccino retouches his Italian roots with this road movie that takes two mismatched Roman teens to San Francisco, New York and Cuba.

Rarely has such a travel budget been squandered on such pseudo soul-searching drivel as Summertime, which takes director Gabriele Muccino, after a couple of English-language bombs (Playing for Keeps, Fathers & Daughters), back into the vicinity of the Italian romantic youth comedies that first put him on the map. That was before his breakthrough 15 years ago with The Last Kiss, and the start of his American career with the 2006 Will Smith vehicle The Pursuit of Happyness, memorable chiefly for its title’s torment of the spelling police.

The big difference now compared to Muccino’s appealingly modest early work as a director is that whatever freshness and spontaneity were once there have evaporated from a movie which yaps ad nauseam about happiness, love and aspirations without ever generating anything but phony sentiment.

The Bottom Line

Winter can’t come fast enough.

Few themes in Italian commercial cinema since the 2000s are more over-trafficked than the agita of late adolescence, when college-age kids stand on the precipice of adulthood, dizzy with fearful excitement as they gaze into the fog ahead. Muccino has frequently flogged that wheezing thematic horse, suggesting it was a time in the director’s life that still has a hold over him. But rarely has he brought so little genuine insight or emotional depth.

That hasn’t stopped audiences in Venice — where the movie premiered ahead of its Sept. 15 domestic release in the new Garden section designed to draw a non-industry public — from giving a rousing reception, with extra screenings added. People at the gala were clapping along and dancing in their seats to the end-credits song penned for the movie by veteran Ital-pop star Lorenzo Jovanotti Cherubini. But it’s easy to rev up a home-team crowd with the actors and director on hand to soak up the applause, even for a movie as stupid, annoying and retrograde in its socio-cultural attitudes as this one.

You know you’re in tired formulaic trouble from the opening moments, when that most cutesy of musical instruments, the ukulele, strikes up a plucky tune accompanied by a wispy la-la-la vocal while a voiceover intones: “My name is Marco. I’m 18 years old. I often think about death.” Or words to that effect.

A tousle-haired mop-top who’s only morbid for a minute, Marco (Brando Pacitto) is about to graduate senior high and hasn’t yet figured out what to do next when a motor-scooter accident leaves him with a broken leg and a 3,000 Euro insurance payout. That allows him to delay decisions about his future by following the suggestion of stoner pal Vulcano (Guglielmo Poggi) and taking off for California.

Boarding the flight (lovely Alitalia brand placement), he’s horrified to find himself seated alongside Maria (Matilda Lutz), a good girl from school whom he can’t stand. She wears glasses to show that she’s a joyless pedant, though like Marco’s death fixation, they soon vanish. Vulcano has lined up a place for them both to stay in San Francisco with his American pals Matt (Taylor Frey) and Paul (Joseph Haro), though neither of the Italian guests knew about the other. That means Maria gets the spare room and Marco gets the couch, with much limp hilarity ensuing from his having to share sleeping arrangements with Matt and Paul’s adorable big floppy dog.

OK, here’s my first issue with this unlikely setup: Why would these adoptive San Franciscans open their doors and clear their schedules for complete strangers who are not even particularly gracious? In what appears to be just a couple years in the city’s real estate and finance sectors, the guys have acquired an enviable home (they keep apologizing for having only one guestroom) with a backyard fire-pit and a cinematic kitchen designed for cooking-and-bonding scenes. But do they have no friends or interests of their own? And how did they get so chummy with girl-crazy Vulcano, who’s in Palo Alto for the summer but is never heard from again?

Their selfless hospitality is particularly fanciful when saintly Maria discovers — gasp! — that Matt and Paul are a couple and she makes no secret of her homophobia. But like every other conflict in the movie, which arises only to dissolve in an instant, Maria just has to glimpse a lesbian couple with a rainbow-flag bag and a toddler in the park and she’s already making ravioli for the hosts she was calling perverts a minute earlier. A few tequila shots later, she’s grinding against hot lesbian babes at a bacchanalian gay bar, wearing a midriff top and skimpy cutoffs. Yay!

The patronizing treatment of the gay characters by Muccino, who wrote the feeble script with some assist from Dale Nall, is quite stunning in its tone-deafness. Basically, they serve as accessories for uptight, selfish Maria to tap into her inner cool chick, naturally making her more attractive to drippy Marco. Alas, Maria starts swooning for Matt, who tells the story of how he got together with Paul and their respective bumpy coming-out experiences in an account that flashes back to New Orleans. But Muccino has zero clue here about how to develop convincing American characters, let alone American gay men, so Matt and Paul are basically cuddly toys with toned bodies who behave exactly like excitable Italian teens.

While Marco and Maria complain about the endemic corruption and disenchantment of contemporary Italy, Matt and Paul bemoan the more-more-more acquisitive culture of America in conversations that skim a very shallow pond of social context. With encouragement from Marco, on whom he has a sexless crush, Paul even decides to quit his soulless finance job and return to his great passion, teaching horse-riding.

However, none of this is of any real interest to Muccino. Instead, he simply threads together inconsequential vignettes of the quartet’s “amazing” time together — punctuated by a music video-style song break every few minutes when the (mostly English-language) dialogue dries up — while poor Marco quietly pines for unattainable Maria. And that banal dollop of unrequited summer love is really what the movie is all about, its potential for melancholy softened by Matt’s lesson: “Life’s too short not to be happy.” Yes, someone outside of the Disney Channel actually said that.

To bulk up this painfully thin frolic, cinematographer Paolo Caimi plasters the screen with endless postcard shots, trading Rome for San Francisco for New York for New Orleans for various scenic stops during the recap of Matt and Paul’s cross-country flight to their current safe haven of harmony and acceptance — where they seemingly had no life until Marco and Maria came along. There’s also an interlude during which the four of them skip off to Cuba on the Americans’ dime, hopping in a red 1950s convertible to take in more postcard images of charming old Havana before shedding any last remaining inhibitions on a tropical-paradise beach.

The four main actors all are pretty and harmless enough, even if not one of them ever gets to play a genuine feeling. (Shouting “I’m so happy right now!” doesn’t count.) Still, I hope I never see any of them again. Among the supporting cast, Scott Bakula turns up briefly and thanklessly as Paul’s well-heeled father, who can’t accept what his son is doing to the family in an unconvincing scene where all the Americans are yelling and flinging themselves about like Anna Magnani. If Italian teen audiences are gullible enough to perceive even an ounce of emotional authenticity in this insulting high-gloss dross, good luck to them in the real world.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Cinema nel Giardino)
Production companies: Indiana Production, Rai Cinema
Cast: Brando Pacitto, Matilda Lutz, Taylor Frey, Joseph Haro, Guglielmo Poggi, Jessica Rothe, Scott Bakula, Ludovico Tersigni
Director: Gabriele Muccino
Screenwriter: Gabriele Muccino, in collaboration with Dale Nall
Producers: Marco Cohen, Benedetto Habib, Fabrizio Donvito
Director of photography: Paolo Caimi
Production designer: Tonino Zera
Costume designer: Angelica Russo
Music: Lorenzo Jovanotti Cherubini
Editors: Alexandro Rodriguez, Valentina Brunetti
Casting: Denise Chamian, Judith Sunga
Sales: Rai Com

Not rated, 108 minutes.