September 2, 2007

The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters (09/02/07)

Lettergrade: B

The King Of Kong is an immensely enjoyable documentary covering a rivalry between grown men over the all-time high score for the classic arcade game Donkey Kong. We saw the film the same weekend that Balls of Fury, a movie that takes the premise of Enter The Dragon but substitutes ping-pong for martial arts, was released into theaters. Although I have not seen that movie, its concurrent release combined with the 26% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes is solemn reminder that something real can often be way more entertaining than whatever a room of comedy writers and studio marketing people can concoct. Had The King Of Kong been cast with Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller and directed by the assholes who made Blades Of Glory, I can tell you with complete and utter clairvoyance that it would have been awful.

Fortunately, The King Of Kong is low-budget, starless, and pretty authentic-feeling. As numerous other reviews have stated, at times you can scarcely believe that the people on screen (and their depicted actions) are legit, but director Seth Gordon assures us that they are. The main subject is a guy named Steve Wiebie, a talented charismatic father of two who has never quite lived up to his potential in life. After getting laid off from his job, Steve buys a Donkey Kong arcade game and decides to focus on breaking the all time high score. That score was set by the enigmatic be-mullet'd Billy Mitchell, who now runs a hot sauce company in Hollywood, Florida. Billy attended the first World Video Game Championship in 1982 (held in Fairfield, Iowa and moderated by a volunteer organization calling itself the Twin Galaxies International Scoreboard), where he established himself as the closest thing the classic arcade gaming world has to Bruce Springsteen. As Steve attempts to break Billy's record, the plot unfolds with disputed scores, psychological tricks, and underhanded maneuvers of astounding description.

A wonderful thing is that the movie is assembled in such a way that the one-upmanship between Billy and Steve almost always comes as a surprise. You root for Steve because he's generally good natured and affable, with a loving wife who is clearly concerned about his well-being should he not succeed. It is hysterical to see how Billy, who grows exceedingly arrogant as the movie rolls on, continues to cement his reputation as a world class dick while behaving in ways seemingly contrary to how he proclaims a video game champion ought to behave.

When it comes down to it, however, The King of Kong is wildly entertaining not only for its heart, but because it speaks to a certain element of pop-culture nostalgia. I had a blast catching glimpses of old classics like Burger Time and Beer Tapper (an actual arcade game sponsored by Budweiser in the 80s, before parent groups stepped in and forced the barkeep to sling root beer instead!) In spite of the retro-silliness, it still manages, however, to work as an effective "sports movie."

Although I don't know anyone in their 40s who is as juvenile as Billy is, the movie is clear that while the people on screen certainly have their eccentricities, for the most part they're really not all that different from people you probably know. That's the great aspect of documentaries like this and countless others (such as one of my all-time favorites, Hands On A Hardbody): For better or worse, the film grabs a small cross section of a particular sub-culture and shows a bit about how the people live and what they do. I had a teacher in college who said that movies and books are a way in which we really get to learn about and know eachother... Not the big things, but the more intimate thoughts, fears and observations... kinks, hangups and obsessions. The kind of stuff that most people probably don't wear on their sleeves in other sorts of forums.

I don't mean to over-sell the cultural significance, but every once in a while it's really great to be reminded that films are capable of doing something like what this movie does.