Film review: ‘The Kings of Summer’ revels in comic improvisation

Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias and Nick Robinson run away from home in "The Kings of Summer." Credit: CBS Films
Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias and Nick Robinson run away from home in “The Kings of Summer.”
Credit: CBS Films

‘The Kings of Summer’
Director: Jordon Vogt-Roberts
Stars: Nick Robinson, Nick Offerman
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Like many of today’s comedies, “The Kings of Summer” features scores of free-associational ad-libbing, often by staffers on NBC’s Thursday night lineup. But give it credit: It at least has a genuinely silly plot, not something you can just shoot on the fly. Sick of the tyrannical parenting of his gruff, widowed dad (Nick Offerman, because who else?), Ohio high schooler Joe (Nick Robinson) convinces longtime bestie Patrick (Gabriel Basso) to run away into the woods. Nestled in the ramshackle confines of a house they will semi-competently build themselves, they plan to spend the summer like Thoreau, which is to say free of parental overlords. Wielding axes and even a sword, they will become men — or at least grow Williamsburg-worthy mustaches.

Of course, it still has plenty of improvising, otherwise it wouldn’t be a modern comedy. At least half of the film is dedicated to the likes of Offerman, Alison Brie (as his daughter — in reality she’s only 12 years his junior) and Megan Mullally, as an obliviously upbeat suburban mom, standing or sitting in rooms, spouting non sequiturs. Offerman gets the meatiest, or at least trickiest role. Saddled with very real grief, afraid of being abandoned by everyone, he has to dive into melancholy without bringing the film down with him.

He does it effortlessly, because he’s Ron Swanson. The A plot is a different story; as with anything about high schoolers, things are bound to become a bit emo. Sure enough this bro wonderland — which also includes a third wheel wild card in Biaggo (Moises Arias), a creepy-eyed, toadish freak who spouts insanities like “I met a dog the other day who taught me how to die” — is soon invaded by girls. Joe likes this one girl (Erin Moriarty), but said girl winds up being into Patrick instead. Adolescent urges take over, and our bros learn that eventually in life it’s difficult to put bros before hos.

The film’s inevitable casual sexism is almost handled well, with Moriarty at least getting a few humanizing scenes. Most of what makes “The Kings of Summer” questionably tolerable, though, is that it’s still frequently inspired. Clearly improvised scenes yield gnomic utterances (“Sarcasm: the poor man’s wit,” avers a Chinese food delivery man seen once,) while Arias heroically avoids becoming stale by finding ever weirder places to take his character. If it weren’t a modern comedy, it might be less likable.


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