Ping Pong Playa (2007)

Review

Movie fans of a certain age — about 30 to 45 — have fond memories of a few 1980s HBO mainstays that seemed tailor made for TV. Eddie and the Cruisers, Just One of the Guys, Super Fuzz… charming, silly nuggets that aired endlessly, perfect for our hanging-in-the-basement brains. Whether they were overly earnest or just dumb, they seemed out of place on the big screen. Jessica Yu’s Ping Pong Playa feels like it could easily take its place within that pantheon. It could be a big, watchable cable TV star, especially if you’re 12 years old.

Independent Film Festival of Boston organizers said this was probably the most family-friendly selection in their six-year history, and they’re right. It’s a culturally aware comedy that’s always light instead of challenging, aiming most laughs at the pre-teen set. To put it bluntly, Ping Pong Playa is as goofy as its title.

At its center is Christopher Wang (co-writer Jimmy Tsai), the self-proclaimed ‘C-Dub.’ He’s the hoops-loving underachiever of his Chinese-American family, a clan with a firm hold on the local ping pong monopoly. His brother (a physician, of course) is a table tennis master, winning tournaments and bringing popularity to him mom’s ping pong class and dad’s sporting goods store. Chris isn’t interested. He smacks streetwise constantly, plays schoolyard basketball with little kids, and mocks everything from his brother’s accomplishments to Chinese traditions.

But Yu and Tsai have no intentions of digging beneath the surface of identity issues and family obligation. There’s the opportunity — even at a kid’s level — but nearly everything has an aw-shucks, smiley sheen to it. A ridiculous fender bender causes Chris to fill in for his injured mom and brother, training a ragtag bunch of kids and competing in a big tournament called The Golden Cock. Huh?

Despite Tsai’s best hammy efforts, Yu presents the ping pong workout sessions as a series of clumsy music montages. There just doesn’t seem to be enough script content for anything tangible beyond that. But there is a likable energy and a few cute kids, especially little Andrew Vo as Felix, who Chris nicknames ‘F-Bomb.’ (I love that one.)

Diminutive Felix is actually the only F-bomb in the movie. Somewhere along the way, Yu must have decided to clean up Ping Pong Playa for a young audience because every bit of profanity is covered by the sound effect of a basketball bouncing. Was this part of the plan all along, or did Yu and producers realize they had a kids movie on their hands after the fact?

Yu, an athlete herself — a U.S. fencing team member in the ’80s — has directed a couple of dramatic documentaries and helmed TV shows like The West Wing and Grey’s Anatomy. She doesn’t have any real experience in broader humor, and Ping Pong Playa is proof. But, in a few years, this one will end up on HBO or Cinemax next to Slappy and the Stinkers, with throngs of pre-teens watching it over and over, giggling at Tsai’s ‘what up dawg?’ dialogue. Hey, they may even get interested in ping pong.

Reviewed as part of the 2008 Independent Film Festival of Boston.