‘Ping Pong Playa’: Balls of Mild Frustration
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Jessica Yu’s “Ping Pong Playa” made its premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, shortly after another table-tennis-based comedy, “Balls of Fury,” bounced through mainstream theaters. Both movies attempt to wring humor from the Sino-ping-pong axis: “Balls of Fury” tapped kung-fu clichés and enrobed Christopher Walken in silk brocade; “Ping Pong Playa” pits a trash-talking Chinese-American slouch against his parents’ expectations of high achievement.
Ms. Yu, who also directed the serious-minded documentaries “Protagonist” and “In the Realms of the Unreal,” obviously has more affectionate — and slightly more real — aims for her tidy new comedy. C-Dub (Jimmy Tsai, reprising a character created in a series of mock advertisements) is a goofy NBA-wannabe scalawag in a respectable family that worships the little white ball. Mom and Dad (Elizabeth Sung and Jim Lau) run a ping-pong shop, while C-Dub’s brother, Michael (Roger Fan), a ping-pong champion and a doctor, teaches classes at the community center.
When Michael injures his arm in a car mishap, C-Dub has to take over his brother’s classes, and so begins a good-natured, if light, underdog comedy. Perpetually clad in droopy basketball gear, C-Dub begins by worming cash out of his chubby-cheeked pupils and killing time with his gainfully employed pal J.P. (Khary Payton). In time, C-Dub reforms just enough to gain the favor of the older sister of one of his students. Then, of course, comes the Really Important Tournament, in which he vies against his just-shy-of-campy white rivals from the community center (Peter Paige and Scott Lowell).
The main distinction of the writing (credited to Ms. Yu and Mr. Tsai) in “Ping Pong Playa” is that it hits the marks of Chinese-American self-ribbing (some of which is on view in the increasingly frat-friendly “Harold and Kumar” series). The vigilant C-Dub rails against the bad-driving stereotype, for example, while his mother’s exercise class is a hotbed of “My son the doctor” preening. C-Dub’s whole persona, happily flinging hip-hop slang and ridiculous swagger, is essentially a parodic worst-case scenario from the perspective of hardworking immigrant suburbanites.
But the jokes are unimaginative, and C-Dub and the rest of the movie can’t entirely escape comparisons with the mainstream man-child comedies — namely chumps who won’t grow up, ’80s-movie-style bullies, and urban-slang affectation for fun and profit. The bright side is that C-Dub is a bit more likable than many of his self-satisfied movie counterparts, and Ms. Yu doesn’t pretend not to embrace his stunted maturation (though the final competition is still called the “Golden Cock” tournament).
The primary difference between “Ping Pong Playa” and, say, “Step Brothers,” is that Ms. Yu’s film tries sincerely for family-comedy status, or maybe TV rebroadcast, with its look and feel. Curse words are dubbed over with the sound of a basketball bounce, the buffoonery is wholesome (unless one counts perilously short ping-pong trunks as vulgar), and the biggest gross-out is a big-boned boy cramming his face with chocolate. Dopey montages and music bridges between scenes resemble segues on a TV show. (Ms. Yu most recently worked on “Grey’s Anatomy.”)
“Ping Pong Playa” aims to be an unassuming crowd-pleaser, and it’s hard to bash its community-center scale and Cinnabon-munching protagonist, who acknowledges his own shortcomings by NBA standards. The film feels self-sustained; the weakest bits arrive with the least-developed borrowing from the annals of man-child comedy: the underdone-overdone villains (Messrs. Paige and Lowell, who can’t find a durably funny angle). The mock commercials and interviews in which Mr. Tsai parades his C-Dub character are freely available online and act as a kind of preview for “Ping Pong Playa.” If its brand of amiable ethnic humor hits the spot, then 96 minutes of the routine should be a breeze.