The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
(PG) *** (3 Stars)
Recent movies about spelling bee and crossword competitions have increased box-office takes for the prestigious, yet underperforming, documentary genre. They've also championed the heroes of "geekdom" - those who compete in activities many people, particularly sports fans, snicker at.
"The King of Kong" is a movie that will appeal to both geeks and jocks. Or, more precisely, video game addicts. An activity requiring equal parts physical dexterity and mental alertness, video gaming has never been more popular than it is now. However, this movie centers on a video game that enjoyed its peak popularity more than a quarter of a century ago.
The size of a phone booth (remember those?) and featuring the most elementary of computer graphics, "Donkey Kong" was all the rage in the late '70s and early '80s. As the subtitle implies, it sucked every bit of loose change from the pockets of its patrons.
Two of those devotees, Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe, never shook their respective joneses for "Donkey Kong." They have spent the majority of their adult lives trying to become the greatest "Kong" player of all time.
Mitchell, whose long hair-do, outlaw beard and maroon oxford shirts date him even more than his love of the arcade game, is the decided antagonist here. Based in Hollywood, Fla., Mitchell owns a restaurant and manufactures his own brand of chicken wing hot sauce. The Seattle-based Wiebe is a former Boeing engineer-turned-high school teacher with a guy-next-door appeal. He's also a little too sensitive, and he's more honest and humble than Mother Teresa.
Writer/director Seth Gordon was absolutely blessed to stumble upon two men who couldn't be more different. Their presence provides the film with not only taut dramatic friction but also the feeling that this bizarre waste of time extends beyond lowly "arcade dwellers."
If you didn't know better, you'd swear the movie was another "mockumentary" from Christopher Guest. The dozen or so "Donkey Kong" faithful - mostly fawning Mitchell sycophants - praise the game and their leader with the kind of solemn adoration reserved for heads of state and Nobel Prize winners.
The most unsettling of the group is the seemingly unemployed Iowa senior citizen Walter Day, the self-proclaimed "World Video Game Referee." He a wears an NFL-inspired zebra-striped shirt and has the final say in just who is or isn't the official "champion." Day's longtime allegiance to Mitchell calls into question his own ability to remain unbiased.
The movie plays out as much as an uncomfortable comedy as it does an enlightening slice of unabashed, weirdo Americana. Everyone needs a hobby. Whether it's crossword puzzles, video games or collecting obscure knickknacks, hobbies give us some amount of solace and escape from the real world.
In the case of Mitchell, Wiebe and their small band of devotees, it is an obscure obsession stuck in a time warp that is far stranger than any fiction. (Picturehouse)
Opens exclusively at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, 931 Monroe Drive, Atlanta. Call 678-495-1424 or visit www.landmarktheatres.com.