I was disappointed by Kings of Summer, but the more I think about it now the less I like it. There is nothing funny or insightful about the movie, and despite moments of understated emotional connection that look like they should be touching, the alleged bonds between the characters are poorly conceived or maintained.
The movie is about two teenage friends, Joe and Patrick, and their decision to build a house in the woods to escape their awful home life. How the characters go from barely able to build a functional birdhouse to constructing a legit human house out in the woods is glossed over entirely. Friendship did it! Maybe the non-realism is the point, somehow? No, that doesn’t make any sense. Whatever the case, both these boys have it just awful at home. For Joe, his father has been incredibly sarcastic and makes him do chores all the time. The horror! Meanwhile, Patrick’s parents are just totally uncool. This is evidenced by the way they laugh at Patrick’s assertion that nobody likes vegetable soup. Oh really, Patrick? NOBODY? Really? Incidentally, this scene ends with the one part of the film I laughed at– a stealth reference to the Adult Swim show “Childrens Hospital”–when Megan Mullally (who plays ‘Chief’ on that show) tells her son to take a tomahto as he leaves the house. Again, I suppose it might be argued that the juvenile nature of the boys’ complaints is part of the point. The fact that they’re asserting their independence is the point! The coming-of-ageness is the point! Maybe this would be a little easier to buy if not for the fact that, in Joe’s case at least, his father is asked to realize the error of his ways in response to Joe’s abscondence. I’m so sorry, Joe! My moodiness after my wife’s death must have really been hard on you! You probably would have preferred if I had been physically abusing you instead of just supplying snide remarks to petty annoyances!
Already I was not convinced to root for Joe and Patrick. But then enter into the picture the nail in the coffin. Or, more accurately, the nails-on-a-chalkboard in the coffin: an unbelievably irritating kid named Biaggio. There is no indication that Biaggio has any sort of mental disorder that could make him a sympathetic character. Hell, there’s no indication he even has a family at all. He may very well be an alien sent here to have stupid interactions with humans (something that aliens do far too often). All I know for certain is that he’s meant to be a “weird” addition to the group of teens, the comic relief. He fails to be anything other than intensely aggravating. He mistakes cystic fibrosis for being gay, backtracks on definitive statements he’s made mere moments ago, hides in the dark, and apparently (as revealed in dialogue I hope was improvised) makes incredible baked potatoes. He’s quirky, get it?! He’s quirky and random! That’s what you kids are all into these days, isn’t it? You kids just love idiot characters who spout nonsense because it’s cool to be random, right? RaNdOm!! LoOk At HoW i’M bEiNg So RaNdOm!!!
I want to say that things are better with the adults; that the presence of Mullally, Nick Offerman, and Allison Brie makes up for the lameness going on the woods. But here comes Offerman arguing with the delivery guy about the size of wontons, a joke which is apparently planned as the most quoted section of the film, given the length of time that it goes on and the fact that Brie gets pulled into the joke as well. Yet the scene falls entirely flat, convincing not as a portrayal of a depressed man’s senseless rage nor as comedy sketch. When Brie comes in to calm the situation, then quips, “Your wontonsare too big” when we don’t expect her to say anything about the size of the wontons because she was there to end the discussion… is that supposed to be funny? I mean, I understand the basic joke formula you’re using, but is that the best you’ve got as far as content goes? And if you’re not shaking your head in disbelief after that mess of a scene, know that the wontons return as a blunt metaphor for Offerman’s transformation into a more understanding person. Spoiler: he eats the wontons. How meaningful! I’m afraid I’m going to use up all the sarcastic exclamation marks in the world before this review is done.
Speaking of exclamation marks, let’s talk about the movie’s living exclamation mark–a character so loathsome he’s nearly neck and neck with Biaggio–Colin, the boyfriend of Brie’s character. He’s insufferable, and unlike the others this is clearly by design. But why? His interactions are with Offerman, a man who is already shown to be gruff with people who are in no way antagonistic. Do we really need Colin to go into an a capella rendition of “The Boy is Mine” (probably; no, it was some other song, but it may as well have been “The Boy is Mine“)? Offerman describes it as beingserenaded and makes snarky comments during the singing, naturally. And once again, this is the joke. Colin is singing a song in a falsetto, to Offerman’s character who is uncomfortable with the situation, and… laughs? Are we supposed to find the singing funny, or Offerman’s reaction to it? All I know is everybody else in the theater was cracking up.
But I know, I know, it’s not just about the humor. It’s about the pathos! Damn, I can’t even type a serious exclamation mark anymore. Here is the extent of the pathos in the film: Joe likes a girl, but she likes Patrick more and they have a falling out; Joe’s father learns that he needs to respect his son just because; Biaggio, by virtue of being around all the time, is a good friend. Oh, and Joe comes of age? Because he skins a rabbit? Suddenly that makes him an adult, or something? Wow, even my question marks are sarcastic now. I’m not going to have any honest punctuation before this is over. Here it comes again: Joe learns something about himself! He grows as a person! How exactly he grows as a person isn’t important, all that matters is that he does so get over it! And it’s all leading toward a coolly under-stated finale where Joe and Patrick find that they don’t have to say a word to reconcile their differences. It may be the best-executed moment of the film, and yet it still remains almost entirely unmoving, even as it’s supposed to provide a last-second catharsis or something. But like it’s like realistic because it’s how guys would really act toward one another! Or maybe it’s how fourteen-year olds really act toward one another. I don’t know, maybe in that moment the pre-teen experience is captured perfectly. It still comes off like something we might have seen before, if not in the exact same terms, in better films.
In all, The Kings of Summer is dire. Its understanding of comedy is horribly misguided, its handling of character interaction/growth is pitiful. Its use of metaphor is insulting – when Patrick and Joe get into a fight, their house begins to fall apart! Hmm… I wonder what that means? As a matter of fact, the house in the woods is a clear metaphor for the film as a whole: crudely put together, perhaps functional, but ultimately a pale imitation of something better; best left behind and forgotten.