by Jim Ridley
on Thu, Sep 20, 2007 at 5:26 PM
I've gotten accustomed to people looking at me as if I were on crack when I say this, but...the most entertaining movie I've seen this year is about the cutthroat competition between two guys to see—take a deep breath—who can set the world record at Donkey Kong.
It comes as no surprise that Seth Gordon's documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, held over for a second week at the Belcourt, has been picked up for a Hollywood remake. There's no way, however, a remake could possibly match Gordon's hilarious, engrossing—and yeah, suspenseful—telling of the showdown between Billy Mitchell, the joystick superstar regarded as the Pinball Wizard of '80s arcade staples, and challenger Steve Wiebe, a Washington-state science teacher whose wife confides how little in his life has actually worked out.
Oh, man. You get a tutorial on the hazards of Donkey Kong, an infernally tough game that requires memorizing countless patterns and shifty moves lest you get conked back to Level One. You get one pregnant-ass metaphor in the game's Sisyphean difficulty, which rewards world-class play with a lurking "killscreen" that simply stops the game dead when it reaches the end of the line. (I just know Maureen Dowd has the killscreen tucked away for next year's election coverage.) You get a peek inside a subculture where, as someone said of academia, the conduct is vicious because the stakes are so low.
Best of all, you get two protagonists so richly drawn that Hollywood could only whittle them down to toothpicks. Long-haired, leather-clad and full of art-of-war bromides about videogame competition, hot-sauce salesman Mitchell comes off as the movie's villain. (My one problem with the movie, actually, is how easily it chooses sides, even though Mitchell does himself no favors in the events shown onscreen.) But one look at Wiebe—an elongated Charlie Brown who's shown early on as a teenage athlete choking in the championship game his dad was coaching—and your heart just goes out to him. The scene where he rigs a camera to record his high-score attempt in his garage, while his young son wails "Daddy! Wipe my butt!" offscreen, is one of the funniest portraits of single-minded niche-culture obsession I've ever seen.
I'm tellin' ya, no description can make this movie sound as much fun as it is. Press screenings are usually dull as dust; at this one, the joint broke out in an uproar at the ending. I won't give anything away, but Gordon handles it perfectly. It's the first time I've ever seen an audience burst into cheers at the sight of a conjunction.