Ping Pong Playa proves that Chinese-Americans are not immune from the national stunted-adolescence crisis currently plaguing white comedy protagonists. The man-boy in question is Christopher Wang (co-writer Jimmy Tsai), a fool who goes by the nickname C-Dub, claims that only his Chinese genes (which have made him short) are keeping him from the NBA, and who, according to one of his mother’s friends, “talks like a black person.” Rather than wasting his life sleeping in, playing video games, and dominating young kids in games of pickup basketball, C-Dub’s parents wish their immature son would be more like his brother Michael (Roger Fan), a successful doctor and ping-pong champion. Per formula dictates, C-Dub gets his chance to shine when he inadvertently causes a car accident that injures Michael and Mom and, consequently, forces him to run his family’s ping-pong classes. Jessica Yu’s film, a 180-degree tonal shift from her previous Protagonist, diligently retreads Adam Sandler and Napoleon Dynamite territory, providing C-Dub with copious opportunities to say and do clownish things around adults and children while adhering to a past-sell-date template in which he eventually gets his act together, defeats a bad guy, makes his parents proud, and wins the heart of a beauty.
As is usually the case, such comedies live or die not by narrative ingenuity but by sharp wit, and in that regard Ping Pong Playa reasonably holds its own, thanks largely to spastically stupid C-Dub’s gangsta posturing and verbal inanities (which have been clumsily scrubbed clean of profanities). Still, the director more often than not squanders opportunities for trenchant humor, offering up good-natured jokes regarding Chinese-American life—rigid parental expectations for children, assumptions about Chinese women’s driving skills, the self-perpetuated exoticism of Chinese females—that are generally too cursory and one-note to be nastily incisive, and which are surrounded by dreary portraits of Americans, Indians and gays. Stereotypes abound in Yu’s film, and while none are presented noxiously enough to particularly offend, they’re also not particularly clever, thereby sapping any potential culture-critique prickliness from C-Dub’s quest to earn respect by both being himself and embracing his heritage.