September 25, 2008
Pingpong: the European Family Implodes
Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ***½
Anyone remember the old Peter Shaffer play "Five Finger Exercise"? Highly "theatrical" (code word for a-tad-too-coincidental-and-heavy-handed), this London success made its Broadway debut in 1959 and ran for nearly a year. Directed by John Gielgud, it starred Jessica Tandy, with a very young Brian Bedford and Juliet Mills making (I think) their Broadway debuts. For the movie version, which Columbia released in 1962, the location shifted to the USA and Rosalind Russell replaced Ms Tandy. Enough said. Ms Russell had her moments -- and her films -- but subtlety was seldom part of her repertoire.
I bring all this up because I had completely forgotten about Five Finger Exercise until I saw the recent German film Pingpong, which takes the play's situation of placing an young, budding outsider inside a nuclear family and watching the tension, sexual and otherwise, heat up. It also goes the Shaffer script one better by making the outsider a seldom-seen family member, adding a whiff of near-incest to the mix. Directed and co-written (with Meike Hauck) by Matthias Luthardt, the movie is cast extremely well, and each of the four protagonists -- mom, dad, son, nephew -- make their moments strong and their sub-texts stronger. (The family's dog also plays quite a role in the proceedings.)
There is an inevitability to the course of action taken by the film that adds to, rather than subverts, the tension and believability, and I think this is due as much to the commitment of the actors as to the talented Mr. Luthardt. Pingpong is his first full-length feature, and it shows more than mere promise. His feeling for pacing, composition (the cinematographer was Christian Marohl) and dialog is on the mark, and his movie, which runs less than 90 minutes, combines a nice mixture of the leisurely and the quite-tight-enough. The 2006 release has won a few awards along the way, and its message of what happens when adults give in to that inner "child" is a strong and necessary one. I don't think you'll be disappointed by a rent.
Posted by cphillips at September 25, 2008 11:45 AM