Directed by Michael Tully
Showing at The Charles June 6 and 7
Perhaps every decade gets the ambitious tracking shot it deserves. In the 1950s, Orson Welles complicated film noir's black-and-white morality with the subjectively baroque single-take opening to Touch of Evil. The 1960s had Jean-Luc Godard's car accident money shot to the epic traffic jam in Weekend; the '70s, an adorably blotto Harvey Keitel careening through a party to the Chips' "Rubber Biscuit" in Mean Streets. The '80s ended with Brian de Palma following Bruce Willis' self-satisfied writer from limousine to book launch in The Bonfire of the Vanities (which flopped in 1990). The '90s had Robert Altman's cinematic self-consciousness drifting around a movie lot in The Player; the first part of this century, the excessive excess of Quentin Tarantino's allusion-overstuffed Kill Bill Vol. 1's floating shot in the Japanese club where the 22.214.171.124.'s are woo-hooing right before the Bride takes Sofie Fatale's arm.
Michael Tully might have this decade's tracking shot on lock with his new Ping Pong Summer. The breezy coming-of-age comedy is set in the summer of 1985 during a family's summer vacation in Ocean City, Md. And in one scene, the entire family Miracle-genial state trooper dad (John Hannah), caring if a bit anxious mom (Lea Thompson), awkward teenage boy Radford (Marcello Conte), and his sarcastic older goth sister Michelle (Helena May Seabrook)-head to the Paul Revere Smorgasbord for dinner. And to introduce the place, Tully turns to the kind of slow-moving tracking shot that action-flick directors typically resort to in order to fetishize overpriced cars or women's bodies. Only in this case, Tully uses it to take in the grotesque abundance of an all-you-can-eat buffet as his camera drinks in chafing dish after chafing dish after chafing dish of food. Mounds and mounds of food. Piles. Heaps. It's disgustingly hilarious as it goes on forever, though that funny turns to queasiness after a bit and concludes with this suffocating nausea, like you've just sat through a visual reminder of everything wrong with America.
The entire movie experience doesn't quite reach that level of indulgence and, sadly, settles merely for the halfway mark's indigestion. Ping Pong Summer relies a bit too much on nostalgia for the 1980s and Ocean City, which isn't disappointing in and of itself. There's simply not much more to the movie than that. It's a mash note to another era remembered with all of its preciousness intact, untarnished by the passage of time or the onset of adulthood. It's a memory stroll through a male adolescence that was, by and large, not that bad. Sure, there's social awkwardness, an absolute ignorance as to how to behave around girls, and rich kids snootily bullying middle-class kids. But, hey, at least there was a middle class.
Summer follows the misadventures of Radford, who goes by Rad. He's a suburban white kid who likes hip-hop (and breakdances about as embarrassingly as a suburban white kid who likes hip-hop should) and likes to rock his red parachute pants around the house, and, while he's not a dolt, his immaturity sometimes compels him to seek answers of convenience rather than relying on common sense. Case in point: As the movie opens, he decides he wants to have a hard-boiled egg, and instead of taking the time to boil water, he microwaves an egg fresh out of the fridge. Surprisingly, it doesn't explode, and after he discards the shell into the sink, he bites into it and-of course-burns his face with a jet of nuked yolk.
Rad's also really into ping pong, paddling a ball back and forth to himself in the garage. He brings his paddle with him when the family drives to OC for the summer and strikes up a friendship with Teddy (Myles Massey), who entices Rad down to the local arcade to play. There, Rad meets his summer's real fixations: Stacy (Emmi Shockley), the pastel-eye-shadowed girl with the sugar jones (she pours pop rocks into her soda), and obnoxiously uptight rich kid Lyle (Joseph McCaughtry) with his chubby sidekick Dale (Andy Riddle). Lyle crushes Rad in table tennis and establishes the summer's social hierarchy. Whatever Rad and Teddy think they want, Lyle and Dale will remind them they can't have it.
Fortunately, Rad's economy-minded dad rented a house next door to local freakshow Randi Jammer (Susan Sarandon), who, in addition to being a lady who knows how to remove a fish's head from its body, just so happens to be a former tennis champ. She serves as Rad's table-tennis Mr. Miyagi, setting up the inevitable showdown with Lyle down at the arcade in front of all the other kids, Stacy included.
This is utterly formulaic fare, but if you've ever been to OC, or did things like family beach vacations, Ping Pong Summer occasionally tickles the nostalgia bone with bull's-eye accuracy: The ostensible social status conveyed by ridiculously oversized boom boxes makes for great visual gags, and the dayglo teen dance club Rad, Teddy, Stacy, et al. go to will be depressingly familiar to anybody whose girlfriend-no, seriously, it was entirely her idea-might have dragged him to one in the '80s.
What keeps the movie from slouching entirely into cliché are key members of the cast. Massey gives Teddy the irrepressible buoyancy of a teenage boy thirsting for a best friend, and Riddle gamely isn't afraid to ease his sidekick character into heterosexual-life-partner terrain. At center stage Conte does a commendable job making the stereotypical Rad less one-dimensional. It helps that Conte visually conveys teenage gracelessness: He's got the still-developing lanky frame that made John Francis Daley so perfect as the tween Sam in Freaks and Geeks, and he's got Emile Hirsch's latently insane eyes. Is he going to grow up into sweetheart or psychopath? Who knows. But right now, this summer, he's harmless.
Sarandon is the best thing here, but a close second are Amy Sedaris and Robert Longstreet as Aunt Peggy and Uncle Jim, who damn near run away with the movie. They're the childless couple that lives in an Ocean City beachfront apartment building, the adults who didn't let adulthood spoil their party. They're inappropriately intimate, overly familiar with family, and appear to wear their bathing suits 24/7 in the summer. They serve as brief comic relief during a short family get-together, but the movie about what those two get up to in the off season has the potential to be a Requiem for a Dream-like descent into permanent vacation's hell.