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“Ping Pong Summer”
Directed by Michael Tully 
Starring Marcello Conte, Myles Massey, Emmi Shockley, Lea Thompson, Susan Sarandon, Amy Sedaris, John Hannah, Robert Longstreet
Comedy
United States

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The opening scene to Ping Pong Summer sees Rad – our very uncool, ironically named protagonist – trying to make a hardboiled egg. After getting a pot of water boiling, he eyes the microwave, opting for the easier route, hoping to satisfy his need for eggy goodness as quickly as possible. As that white egg spins in the hollows of a 1980s microwave, you could hear the audience groan with unease. “Is it gonna explode?” you could almost hear them fret. When Rad pops the now piping hot egg out thirty seconds later, peels it and chomps down, the yolk – now essentially a yellow sun of melty goo – explodes onto his face like yolked magma. Half of the hapless audience explodes with laughter. After digesting the contents of the remainder of this helplessly uncool flick though, one ought to see this dismal cold open as the perfect analogy for the film at large – an easy route to the finish line that just ends up exploding in its own face.

The most insurmountable problem of Ping Pong Summer is that it thinks it’s ironic but never does anything to convince us that they even know what the word means. Imitation is not art nor is it satire. Simply recreating the oddness of an epoch without actually trying to make some statement about it just goes to show the work of someone who doesn’t quite understand what irony means. A film about the 80s isn’t ironic because it’s about the 80s, there needs to be something more, something deeper. As it is here, you could measure the depth with a few clicks of pencil lead.

The characters are hammy archetypes, the plot essentially a familiar riff on the underdog sports flick – a tacky take on Rocky; the Out Cold of ping pong – and the acting is bottom shelf. If there’s one thing I learned at SXSW, it’s don’t drink too much of the cheap stuff. It may be tempting but you’ll end up paying for it later. It’s too bad that Ping Pong Summer didn’t learn that lesson as well.

Myles Massey as Rad’s snarky sidekick is the picture of everything Ping Pong gets wrong. As an actor, he’s an absolute nightmare. Every last phrase Massey cloyingly utters feels like it was read from the crook of his underarm. It’s recited like bad Shakespeare, spewed like a word burp, overblown and ham-fisted. I get it, he’s a kid but he’s exactly the reason why children actors get such a bad rap. This kid is bad. Not Michael Jackson bad, not “so bad he’s good” bad, just plain old, tried-and-true bad.

Heading up the show, Marcello Conte as Rad is surprisingly enough the best part of the film and is the only one who feels like a living breathing person. It seems like he was the solitary kid in this overblown production that actually took a few acting classes beforehand. Good on him. Even veteran Susan Saradon phones it in from a million miles away. Her halfhearted take on a Mrs. Miyazaki is downright dreadful, an abject failure from beginning to end. From the place-holder writing of her character to her tepid arc that fails to work on even the shallowest level, she is another symptom of director Michael Tully‘s essential misunderstanding of how to treat character. In one fell swoop, he’s proven he has no handle on how to direct his actors, even those that’ve been at the game for decades.

With the sporadic fits of laughter that Ping Pong pulled from the audience, I often wondered if I was just not in on the joke, if my lack of being a preteen in the mid-80s was what created the emotional distance I felt from everything going on onscreen. Upon further reflection though, whether that’s the case or not, it’s no excuse. Film is supposed to be transportative. A film about the 80s is supposed to make the audience feel a time and a place – to appreciate, or at least, understand it. To rely on nostalgia alone is never enough and results in something as uneven and pale as this. In the future, Tully ought use nostalgia as a tool, not a crutch.  Here though, he’s nostalgia crutching so hard that it’s no wonder the film can hardly stand on its own two feet.

D

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