Ping Pong Summer should be the kind of sweetly nostalgic comedy that a guy like me would love for a couple of reasons. Having grown up a child of the '80s, there's a twang of recognition at the mere mention of old school rap groups like The Fat Boys, or downing tons of Pixie Sticks with my friends until we were high as a rocket. Plus, being a child of the DMV I'm familiar with Ocean City, MD where writer/director Michael Tully has set his film and clearly has tons of his own childhood memories. And perhaps that is the problem, as Tully goes so far down the retro rabbit hole there isn't the barest hint of an engaging story.
Essentially what Tully is trying to do here is recreate the classic 1980s "against all odds" Karate Kid scenario, where the geeky kid defeats the bully using a skill he never knew he had. In this case it's ping pong, naturally, but the film isn't remotely interested in this triumphant underdog scenario until we've heard our millionth unnecessary turntable scratch (because turntables are uniquely '80s somehow?), and by then we're far beyond caring. Set in 1985 although the references freely bounce around the decade, the story centers on Rad (newcomer Marcello Conte), a stereotypical dork on vacation with his family (John Hannah and Lea Thompson are his parents) in Ocean City. Rad loves hip-hop and breakdancing, although he's terribly goofy-looking while doing it. He's too innocent and naive to notice or care, but that obliviousness extends to his new best friend, the jeri-curled beatboxin' Teddy Fryy (Myles Massey). Of course there's a troubled hot chick, Stacy Summers (Emmi Shockley), who has a jealous ex-boyfriend in Lyle (Joseph McCaughtry), a guy who might as well have on a Cobra Kai t-shirt.
It's easy to see that Tully is intentionally aiming to be a totally formulaic comedy here, going so far as to include Susan Sarandon in the Mr. Miyagi role. She plays Randi Jammer, the town pariah who helps train Rad for a ping pong match against Lyle to win Stacy's heart. One would think with Sarandon clearly the film's biggest name there would be more scenes with her, however she seems to be just passing through. There's also a significant disconnect in the approaches taken by Tully and the cast. While he litters every scene with as many self-referential cultural touchstones as possible: bad hair, cassette tapes, hot pink; the actors play their characters straight up and without parody. It's tough to figure if Tully is in love with the era or trying to mock it. An "afterschool special" storyline involving Stacy's addiction to Fun Punch, a Bug Juice-like concoction of Icee, Pixie Sticks, and Pop Rocks would suggest Tully is having fun with the overzealous "Say No to Drugs" campaign, but in other places there's a reluctance to go beyond surface nostalgia.
Performances are earnest and somewhat endearing, especially Conte as the story's clueless hero. Period details are on-point in only the most superficial way, unlike a similar film like Adventureland which truly feels of the era. Ping Pong Summer wants to be like the kind of movie you'd have bought a ticket for in the '80s, but it's closer to the kind of film you wish had stayed in the past where it belongs.