Computer Chess is a strange movie that never quite makes its strangeness endearing or enlightening. It takes place over the course of a long weekend in the eighties as a group of computer programmers meet for a computer chess tournament. This isn’t, you understand, about the chess games; it’s about the computer programs playing the games. The film is pretty high concept; Bujalski is kind of a darling of microbudget films and he apparently wrote a very brief treatment and then let his cast of nerds and goofballs improvise the film. Most of the cast is non-professional and the film is shot entirely on analog video cameras from the eighties. To the degree that the film wants to achieve a documentary feel & look, it succeeds. In just about every other way, it fails. A lot of the cast is good. Wiley Wiggins (of Dazed & Confused) is good as a harried programmer; Patrick Riester is really wonderful as the awkward main character (to the degree there is one), a withdrawn assistant programmer; Myles Paige is reliably great as an arrogant, completely unlikable programmer. But the film feels like its reaching to capture a lot of things about this moment in time, about what it all means for us today in terms of technology. The film’s final scene stretches for something genuinely transcendent and it’s just stupid and falls flat. And, good as the performances are, there’s not a lot in terms of character arcs or drama. There are occasional good moments; the best scene is one where Patrick Riester’s incredibly awkward character finds himself in a very awkward conversation with Chris Doubek & Cyndi Williams as a pair of middle-aged swingers. This scene is really quite brilliant, cringe-inducing and hilarious in the way that I think a lot of the film wants to be, but isn’t. A lot of this lack of character arcs and plotting is obviously intentional, but I just wonder to what end. The film is almost entirely shot on crappy analog video and is in black and white – about three-quarters of the way through the film, things kind of briefly stutter and suddenly, we’re in color and on sixteen millimeter for about two minutes before we then change back to the b&w video. Okay, fine, it’s a trippy moment, but what does it mean? What’s significant about that scene? What does the format change signal? It feels like Bujalski wants us asking these questions, but I don’t think even he knows what the answers are. Some people really feel for this movie; one of the critics at the A.V. Club named it his top film of 2013 and called it “a new Dr. Strangelove” in terms of its satire and comedy. One wonders what movie he saw; certainly not the one that I did. The film wants to be deep and meaningful in some very weird ways, but it isn’t; its ambition is skin-deep and it’s ultimately a really superficial film, interesting only in its gimmicks. 1 ½ stars.
tl;dr – microbudget indie captures a sense of time and place and a real documentary feel, but it’s ultimately flat and uninteresting, a film that stretches for import and fails to find it. 1 ½ stars.