Monday, June 3, 2013

The Big Review: The Kings of Summer

Yeah, look tough all you want, I'm still watching Moonrise Kingdom.
And the worst part is, this could have been really, really good. This review appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission. 

By the way, I tried to see Before Midnight for this month, but the scheduling gods just didn't cooperate. My apologies. 


The Kings of Summer tries to be serious and funny and sentimental and dramatic. I’m sure there are other adjectives that I have momentarily forgotten, all of which are trotted out like sales techniques. Every time we know what we’re watching, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts rolls up his sleeves and starts another pitch that further obscures the movie’s identity. 

In suburban Ohio, Joe Toy (Nick Robinson) is a teenager on the brink. He lives with his dad (Nick Offerman), a widower who uses sarcasm and brusqueness as emotional armor. They’re not getting along. Example: Joe wants to go out. Dad, who has reinstated family game night to impress his girlfriend, says no. Monopoly ends with a visit from two police officers. It’s not the first time they’ve played mediator. 

Joe doesn’t care. He goes to a rowdy late-night party that gets broken up. While finding his way home, Joe and a random weirdo, Biaggio (Moises Arias), encounter a patch of verdant forest that practically glows. It’s a place where a kid can get away from everything, especially angry adults. When Mr. Toy hijacks Joe’s phone flirtation with the school babe (Erin Moriarty), a switch flips. Joe knows the woods can provide a better home than his dad. 

The proposal is equally appealing to Joe’s best friend, Patrick (Gabriel Basso), whose parents’ non-stop blather gives him hives. Biaggio joins the group, because according to Joe, “I don’t know what he’s capable of.” Joe draws up blueprints, and the boys pick up a mailbox here, a plank of wood there. Before you know it, a house is built. There are no parents, no rules, and infinite freedom. At least until the authorities get involved. 

Where did the boys get building materials? How long did it take them to erect this glorified, earth-bound tree house? The answers don’t matter when you’re profiling a boyhood utopia built on a foundation of pluck and naivety. Chris Galletta’s script lacks the awareness and whimsy found in Wes Anderson’s growing-up tales so The Kings of Summer keeps collapsing from the weight of its own disbelief. 

Joe’s dad and Patrick’s parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) exist in sitcoms. Kids do not run away from people they’ve laughed at since age 5. They roll their eyes or ignore them. If that doesn’t work, they may distract themselves with recreational drugs and unprotected sex. Convenience store parking lots and bedrooms stocked with video games and DVDs also work. Running away and voluntarily going all Mosquito Coast is ludicrous. We know that. Presumably, so do Galletta and Vogt-Roberts, who, instead of acknowledging that, turn every adult character into a weirdo or a dope. We’re asked to take this youthful retreat seriously only to have that intent diminish with every goofy diversion—and there are a lot of them.  

Admittedly, it’s easier to bring the funny than deal with being 14 or 15 and feeling trapped as your parents’ tag-along. But when you’re heartfelt from a distance and sarcastic at close range, you breed contempt. We’re bombarded with easy laughs, yet no one considers how to work them into a tender story about boys being boys. So we’re subjected to poor Alison Brie (playing Robinson’s sister) sporting an effeminate, desperate-to-please boyfriend who sings “The Band Played On.” And a delivery guy who brings wonton soup with wontons the size of throw pillows. There’s even a doofus police officer. Come to think of it, the children don’t get away clean either. Biaggio is transparent comic relief, a miniature, autistic Christopher Walken. He serves no purpose other than to keep Galletta and Vogt-Roberts from challenging us. Or themselves. 

There is a good movie here, if anyone wanted to dig a little. The rapport between Robinson, Offerman, and Brie during family game night is wonderful. We know these three have endured a rough patch, but have enough love to fill the holes.  Vogt-Roberts could have used that history as a platform to examine the rift between Offerman and Robinson’s characters or to explore how Brie’s boyfriend sticks around. Joe’s fascination with one of his sister’s friends is a ripe subplot if everyone decides not to take the T&A highway. So many options exist that are more rewarding–and far less irritating--than what’s presented.

The Kings of Summer skirts the issues that cause teenagers to rebel and parents to hold tight. Vogt-Roberts hopes you’ll relish the puckish courage that comes in being young and not recognize that his movie is a long shimmering, laugh-desperate diversion. [R] 

1 comment:

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Yes, it's a boys' coming-of-age story, but it's told in a unique and imaginative way, and Nick Offerman is always wonderful. The movie assumes you have seen Stand By Me, so it doesn't hand you every little detail on a plate. Don't fret about HOW some things happen. Just go with the basic story of an older boy striving for his independence, and enjoy some hilarious writing and inventive storytelling.