The hero of "Ping Pong Playa" warns his fellow Asian-Americans of becoming a sort of "Chinese Napoleon Dynamite" - but it's too late, he's already there himself. As played by Jimmy Tsai (who also co-wrote the script), twentysomething hip-hop wannabe "C-Dub" is a limp caricature of nerdish posturing and manchild selfishness. It's not just Jon Heder that Tsai is channeling here, though, as the film also cribs liberally from "Billy Madison," "Malibu's Most Wanted," and the entire catalogue of Will Ferrell Sports Comedies.
At least there's a certain charm to C-Dub's exploits. There's an energy in Tsai's performance that makes up, sort of, for the lack of workable jokes, and his rapport with the young kids that surround him throughout the story adds a cuteness factor that's desperately needed.
Perhaps that's why the film was retooled - or, at least, looks like it was - as a family-friendly comedy, with the character's frequent naughty language covered up by sound effects, scrubbing the movie clean. (That it still landed a PG-13 "for language" is another sign the MPAA is broken beyond repair.) Tsai works well with these kids, who in turn provide an aw-shucks adorability that earns quite a few smiles. After all, what's not to like about an eleven-year-old nicknamed "F-Bomb"?
But there's not much else to like in this, a jumbled mess of clichéd storytelling, lazy comedy, and undercooked intentions. Tsai's character is a one-note affair, the Chinese guy trying too hard to "act black," and he's swept up in the soggiest of crude sitcom plotting: this full-of-himself slacker gets roped into covering for his overachiever brother (Roger Fan) teaching ping pong to kids at the local community center; C-Dub eventually takes his brother's place in the big tournament, and as he trains, plucky kids and helpful dad (Jim Lau) at his side, he learns what it means to be a real winner, etc., etc.
At times the film appears to aim for a smug parody of ragtag-kids sports flicks - one montage spoofs the "Rocky" museum stair run; the ping pong championship trophy is the Golden Cock - but the parody is so half-baked that all those training montages set to royalty-free "Eye of the Tiger" sound-alike music makes it look instead like the filmmakers are grasping for the real thing. The script plods through all the requisite plot points: making good with the parents, showing up the wicked villains (who are attempting to undermine the family business), getting the girl, and on, and on. Because of this, C-Dub starts out as a joke, a broad sketch of a wacky character, but ends up, via sappy, mushy, soggy earnestness, as a real guy. It doesn't work.
A more interesting failure is the movie's efforts to comment on race, stereotype, and the ol' melting pot. C-Dub, with his braggart persona and NBA pipe dreams, is a product of hip hop culture; his black pal (Khary Payton) is learning to speak Mandarin and works to join that community. It's a nice counterpoint. Throughout, there's a visible effort put forth to erase obvious ethnic boundaries and present a more enjoyably complex portrait of modern American life, rich in heritage yet constantly moving forward.
But then the script smothers this idea under obvious slapstick and flat dialogue and unnecessary asides (what's with the local TV interview cutaways?) and loud, loud, loud punchlines. For all its cuteness and charm, "Ping Pong Playa" is also obnoxiously noisy, as Tsai's C-Dub shouts his way through scene after scene, and the soundtrack shouts along.
Most curious is the appearance of Jessica Yu in the credits. An Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker (for the 1996 short "Breathing Lessons"), Yu's most successful works have divided critics, who called them courageous or pretentious, depending. She's been viewed as a filmmaker eager to push the limits of the form. And now, here she is, directing and co-writing a low budget comedy about a childish dolt, cute kids, and a wacky ping pong tourney.
She's not the first "serious" director to attempt comedy, and her brief stint in television (including a memorable three-episode run on "The West Wing") proves she can handle fiction as well as documentary. But she's way out of her depth here, delivering a comedy that's all over the map, too broad, too obvious, too unsure of where it's going and why it's going there. She's content to let the one-joke nature of the story be enough, and when that fails, bring in those adorable kiddies. As such, for all its almost-charms, "Ping Pong Playa" becomes an endless stream of near-misses.
Video & Audio
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer doesn't do much to improve the dull, heavily grainy image of the film, obviously shot on a shoestring.
There's little difference between the Dolby 5.1 and 2.0 soundtrack options; the surround mix offers deeper, fuller range for the numerous musical moments, while both tracks provide clear dialogue up front. Optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles are provided. (A second English subtitle track, offering translations of the film's brief Mandarin dialogue, is a default setting; it, too, is removable.)
Yu and Tsai team up for a commentary track; Tsai turns out to be as energetic (exhaustingly so) as his character.
"PPP: Post Game" (9:10; various aspect ratios) is a sort of gag reel, combining outtakes, extended improv scenes, and behind-the-scenes goofiness.
"PPP: Warm-Up Drills" (5:08; 1.33:1 anamorphic windowboxed) presents five minutes of highlights from Tsai's 2004 multimedia project "The Venom Sportswear Ad Campaign," which introduced the C-Dub character in a series of faux commercials and interviews. (I'm not sure why the whole "Venom" output isn't included here.) It's a pretty funny bit, suggesting the character works best in small doses, separate from attempts at story and message.
The film's insufferably unfunny trailer (1:53; 1.78:1 anamorphic) and a set of text-only cast and crew bios round out the disc.
A batch of trailers plays as the disc loads.
There are glimpses of charm throughout "Ping Pong Playa," and for that, fans of mild-mannered indie comedies will do fine to Rent It. But the bulk of the film - combined with a shaky visual presentation - should be enough to keep the rest of you away.