The Kings of Summer opens in select cities today. It will make its way to the other, non-select cities at some point soon. Patience is a virtue.
The Kings of Summer seems to have come from the mind of Nick Offerman, but it was actually written by first time screenwriter Chris Galletta, a former David Letterman joke writer. The plot of the film finds three teenage boys spending the summer in the woods, building a house and trying to live a Walden type existence to get away from their annoying and overbearing parents. While this goes on, Nick Offerman, who plays Frank, the father of the lead MIA rapscallion, spews acidic, very funny venom at any fools he has to suffer while trying to determine the whereabouts of his son. The story of the high schoolers learning the lay of the land and yearning to be free from authority sounds like both Offerman — a modern day renaissance man who builds canoes during his downtime — and his Parks and Recreation character Ron Swanson’s version of a YA novel, and putting people and institutions down through wit, threats, and condescension while possessing a homespun but usually sound logic is how Swanson communicates.
It’s fairly difficult to try to be both a contemporary, sincere coming-of-age story and a laugh riot, which is why the movie ultimately comes off as uneven. There were times when it felt unnatural to leave the boys Joe (Nick Robinson from Melissa & Joey, apparently), Patrick (The Big C’s Gabriel Basso), and town weirdo Biaggio (Moises Arias, used to be on Hannah Montana, you might have seen him a few times on The Middle) from their adventures in the wilderness to return to Frank and everybody else back in civilization poorly but amusingly playing Detective. And just as you were happy to have Offerman, his daughter Alison Brie, Patrick’s mother Megan Mullally, and hapless police officers Mary Lynn Rajskub and Thomas Middleditch back in your life, we were back to worrying about ticks and snakes.
It was distracting, and the parts were greater than the whole, but those parts were mostly enjoyable. Galletta’s script was careful to make the motivations of the boys believable, and the ways Offerman, Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson irritated their children enough to have them run away without television or friends for weeks and months were believably grating, and subsequently right in those actors’ comic wheelhouses. Jordan Vogt-Roberts (director of five Funny or Die Presents episodes), in his film directing debut, shot the scenes in the woods beautifully, and some of the music choices — like old-school MGMT — added to the feeling of how beautifully terrifying freedom can be. Biaggio was the token weird, mysterious kid you find in high school comedies just there for comic relief, but sometimes his lines were so absurd they were funny despite themselves. Joe’s dream sequences added to our understanding of the confused, angsty character, and to the humor, enough that the abrupt tone change was forgivable. Offerman was in his element, able to make a man who takes Monopoly way too seriously likable. His argument with Kumail Nanjiani was a comedic highlight.
Summer is better than I’m probably making it out to be. You’ll laugh, feel some feelings, and a lot of cool people are in it, which is more than good enough for a movie. The frustration is that it consisted of two potentially great films that kept bumping up against one another to form a good one.