' Cinema Romantico: Ping Pong Summer

Monday, June 09, 2014

Ping Pong Summer

“Ping Pong Summer” is an exercise in rampant nostalgia, the Me Decade seen through rose colored slot glasses, a trip down memory lane in a DeLorean, set in 1985 and starring Lea Thompson as the main character’s mom, an actress who portrayed a fairly famous cinematic mom in a fairly famous movie from......1985. At one point the film settles in to simply watch its characters settle in and listen to the Casey Kasem Long Distance Dedication. It has nothing to do with anything, existing as a silver screen time capsule, transporting men and women of a certain age to a certain place and time, winning us to its side not with cinematic craft but slanted sentimentality. Those unfamiliar with or suspicious of the Long Distance Dedication might consider this the basement bar of pandering, and they would not necessarily be wrong. This critic, however, admits flashing back to the summer of 1987 and the omnipresent disappointment of “Only In My Dreams” failing to ascend the American Top 40 Summit. Film is about emotion, above all else, and emotion got the best of this critic, and this critic will not apologize.


The story, as such, involves a summer family getaway to the shambling resort town of Ocean City, Maryland, a town I remember repeatedly seeing on the ginormous United States Map thumb-tacked to the wall above my flimsy childhood desk (in the 80's!) and always thinking "Ocean City! How romantic sounding! A city on the ocean!" Alas, “Ping Pong Summer” demonstrates Ocean City is nothing much more than a less-hyped Jersey Boardwalk. And while there are echoes of Savage Steve Holland’s (“One Crazy Summer”,“Better Off Dead”) brand of out-of-left-fieldness, writer/director Michael Tully really takes his cues from music videos of the era, specifically videos that combined whacked-out semi-narratives with outrageous atmospherics and costumes and props around the songs. The film's Art Director could have been Bonnie Tyler if Bonnie Tyler had been raised in Park City, Utah.

A trip to Paul Revere’s Buffet, for instance, finds the camera panning the entire spread - the entire spread - of heat-lamped hors d'oeuvres and the only symbolism in this elongated shot has to do with the film’s tone, quirky tending toward strange and stranger. Our hero Rad Miracle (Marcello Conte) goes to a youth dance and orders a "suicide" - you know, every kind of soda from the fountain mixed together, and in the film's funky context this is meant to personify his first name. Speaking of funky, Rad's requisite love interest Stacy Summers (Emmi Shockley) harbors an addiction to “funk punch”, some sort of “illicit” drink involving crushed pixie sticks and pop rocks, as if alluding to the cocaine craze of the decade without officially having to address it. After all, a kid in the 80's had heard of cocaine, but that substance was as far away as Libya.

The plot turns on Rad running afoul of snobby rich kids Lyle (Joseph McCaughtry) and Dale (Andy Riddle), giving off serious Iceman/Slider sparks. Lyle humiliates Rad at ping pong who promptly demands a rematch. Theoretically the film builds toward that climactic showdown as our radical combatant becomes the protégé of the weirdo next-door neighbor, Randi Jammer (Susan Sarandon), Mr. Miyagi by way of Miss Havisham. But that would suggest urgency and summer vacations are never urgent, until six hours before they end, which is why it’s roughly six hours before his match that Rad becomes concerned. He takes up his paddle and Randi dispenses wisdom that, as it turns out, is as much about attitude as table tennis.

The film's opening shot finds Rad break-dancing to the beat in his head. We know it’s a beat in his head because eventually the shot switches and we see his shaky dance moves from the vantage point of a lawn-mowing neighbor and there is no music. Thus, the Hero's Journey of “Ping Pong Summer” becomes less about whether Rad wins or loses the Big Match than about him learning to unashamedly break dance when everyone is looking. Do that, grasshopper, and you will have mastered your fear. Nostalgia or not, that lesson is ubiquitous.

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