September 10, 2007

MOVIES: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (Seth Gordon, 2007)

One of my rules of thumb for documentaries is that people doing something they love are always interesting, even if what they're doing doesn't interest you in the least. Here's a fine example, a documentary about two men battling for the all-time scoring record in Donkey Kong.

As the movie opens, the reigning champ for more than 20 years has been Billy Mitchell. As champs go, the video gaming world couldn't have asked for a better representative. Mitchell is charismatic (albeit in a somewhat creepy, vaguely satanic way), brash, and cocky; he's not likable, exactly, but he's certainly not forgettable.

He stands in stark contrast to Steve Wiebe, who plays Donkey Kong in his garage in suburban Portland. Wiebe is a pasty man with bland features; you forget what he looks like even while he's still on the screen. (It's a running joke in King of Kong that no one can even remember how to pronounce his name; everyone keeps saying "weeb" instead of "wee-bee.") He's the kind of sad sack who is very good at many things, but never quite good enough at any of them; things keep going wrong for Wiebe.

So even Wiebe is a bit shocked when he breaks Mitchell's record, and the video gaming world is caught completely by surprise. Could this nerd really dethrone the man who has been the face of gaming for a quarter century? Almost immediately, everyone involved begins taking sides. Mitchell thinks Wiebe has cheated; Wiebe is suspicious of Mitchell's refusal to play him in a live, head-to-head battle.

Director Seth Gordon has gotten tremendously lucky with his two principal characters; Mitchell, in particular, is a villain straight from central casting, so hissable that you don't really mind that Gordon's clearly taking Wiebe's side. Every time you think he's gotten a little bit too slanted in his storytelling, along comes Mitchell to say or do something to make you even more sympathetic to Wiebe.

Gordon tells the story with a terrific sense of humor, juxtaposing his characters' words and actions in just the right way. He even manages to get a laugh with a music cue, which I don't think I've ever seen in a documentary before; we cut to Mitchell, looking particularly sinister, and we hear the unmistakably sinister growl of Leonard Cohen: "Everybody knows the dice are loaded..."

Like Spellbound or Mad Hot Ballroom, this is a sharp and lively look inside a tiny little subculture of America. It's a terrific movie; highly recommended.

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