Last Summer in the Hamptons: Jaglom’s Comedy of Manners, Starring Viveca Lindfors and Andre Gregory

Following the critical and commercial disappointment of his last picture, “Babyfever,” Henry Jaglom takes a step forward in “Last Summer in the Hamptons,” a mildly amusing comedy of manners that evokes in spirit, if not in accomplishment, the spirit of Chekhov, Renoir, and most specifically Woody Allen.

A large, extraordinary cast of eccentric performers, like Viveca Lindfors and Andre Gregory, almost overcomes the trappings of familiar ideas, making Jaglom’s 11th outing one of his most pleasing in years.

With “Eating” and “Babyfever,” Jaglom explored the format of docudramas, that despite their honorable feminist intentions, some critics felt were pandering, if not downright condescending, to women. The good news is that the longtime indie survivor has gone back to his previous mode of making personally whimsical, if often slight, comedies about contemporary issues and relationships that reflect his very own. Jaglom is a director who has carried auteurism to its logical, though also dangerous and quite absurd, extreme.

In the new narrative the inspiration is Chekhovian–in mood as well as texture. Set in a lush East Hamptons estate, the story concerns three generations of a large, narcissistic theatrical family, headed by powerful matriarch Helena (Viveca Lindfors). It’s actually a commune rather than a biological family per se, as it also includes students and friends, all mobilizing their creative energies for the annual summer production. Jaglom borrows from “The Cherry Orchard” the notion that this is the last summer together at the decades-old retreat, for dire economic circumstances are forcing Helena to sell the cherished property.

The usual comic and not-so-comic shenanigans are exacerbated this summer by the arrival of Oona (Victoria Foyt), a young Hollywood star whose unexpected visit affects–and wreaks havoc on–almost every member of the family. She’s presented as a beautiful, rather naive an insecure actress, facing both personal and professional crisis. Intrigued by the magic of live theater, she wants to become a serious, hopefully legendary, actress, but listening to the family members, she immediately becomes aware of one of the paradoxical problems of the avant-garde, as young playwright Jake (Jon Robin Baitz) puts it: “jealousy of commercial success.”

There are some big gatherings with all the members present, but most of the film consists of intimate encounters in which the characters bare their hearts and reveal their dreams and frustrations. The colorful persona wander around the house, expressing their romantic angst more in the manner of a minor Woody Allen, say “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy,” than “Manhattan.”

Part of the fun in watching the movie is contrasting the knowledge we have of the performers’ “real” lives with those depicted on screen. Hence, basically recreating her own career, the still-ravishing Lindfors is enchanting in her monologues of why she left Hollywood and went back to the New York stage. And playing a legendary director, Andre Gregory is seen executing mental and physical exercises on stage with Brooke Smith who, unfortunately, is given nothing interesting to do or to say.

After 40 minutes or so, the pic begins to lose its steam–and energy–and gets more and more repetitious. Unlike Allen, Jaglom is not very adept in alternating the piece’s comic mood with its more serious one; there’s a good deal of uncomfort when some of the family’s dirty laundry–intimations of incest between Trish and Jake–is aired.

Still, some interesting personal revelations are made, as in Nick’s (Kristoffer Tabori) monologue, which probably echoes the ultimate fantasy of Jaglom and other directors of his kind. Working in the midWest, he says his populist productions satisfy some agenda and are performed for an audience of farmers–with no critics and no coverage in the N.Y. Times!

Magnetic acting makes up for the lack of insightful originality in the script, co-written by Jaglom and wife-actress Foyt. Totally commanding the screen, Lindfors and Gregory shine throughout–one wishes the camera lingered on them rather than constantly cutting away to the lesser subplots. It’s still hard to tell how talented the appealing Foyt is for she’s a playing a variant of her role in “Babyfever.” Jon Robin Baits has some good moments as the gay playwright and so do Melissa Leo, as his troubled sister, and Nick Gregory, as an opportunistic stud. However, one wishes that Martha Plimpton stop playing her specialty, foul-mouthed tomboys, and that Roddy McDowall and Roscoe Lee Browne would be more fully used.

The fluent camera work by reliable lenser Hanania Baer and smooth editing by Jaglom, make the picture a more agreeable experience even in its tedious moments.