The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (U.S., 2007) * * * 1/2
D: Seth Gordon
Steve Wiebe (pronounced "wee-bee," as he'll quickly tell you) is really good at Donkey Kong. Really, really good. The game hasn't been popular for about twenty-five years, but Steve, after getting laid off from his job at Boeing on the same day he and his wife sign the papers for their new house, buys one of the stand-up arcade units and installs it in his garage. He plays day and night, despite the pleas of his family, and--without a feeling of control for anything else in his life--begins to master the notoriously challenging game like few others on the planet ever have.
The King of Kong is about those few others, and before it settles into Steve's story--which then becoming the narrative of the film--it first introduces the viewer to the very select, very cultish world of arcade competition. The self-appointed world arcade record-keeper is Walter Day, a congenial, gray-bearded man given to wearing a referee's uniform and insisting upon his abilities as a solo singer-songwriter and guitarist. He runs "Fun World," a Florida-based vintage arcade whose clientele just have an urge to play Ms. Pac-Man or Galaga. About ten minutes away from this gaming Mecca lives Billy Mitchell, a champion arcade player who holds the world record for Donkey Kong, among other games. Mitchell is now a well-to-do hot sauce manufacturer. His good friend is Steve Sanders, a lawyer who, in the early 80's, claimed to have the highest score in Donkey Kong; Mitchell proved to everyone that such a score wasn't possible by trouncing his opponent in a head-to-head competition, at which point Sanders admitted he'd been lying. There's also Mitchell's toady, the longtime #2 record-holder for Donkey Kong, and Mitchell's chief rival, "Mr. Awesome," a bodybuilder who in his arcade-playing heyday made videotapes on how to pick up women.
Amidst this menagerie, Steve Wiebe seems relatively well-adjusted, but director Seth Gordon paints a portrait of a man who's grown accustomed to failure. (He used to be an ace ballplayer, but when the pressure was too high, found that he lacked the confidence to pitch.) After losing his job at Boeing, he reaches something of a midlife crisis, and copes by turning to his arcade game as others might turn to liquor. But he also spends a year of intense study to earn a Master's Degree, which he uses to get a job as a substitute science teacher. It's only after he's become one of the top Donkey Kong players in the history of the game that he realizes his accomplishment, on a whim browsing for high scores online and coming across Day's "Twin Galaxies" scorekeeping organization. Now he sees a goal that he knows he can reach, without anyone to stop him. He has a specific score to beat to become the top Donkey Kong player in the world: a fixed number and all the time in the world to train himself to top it.
Eventually Wiebe melds with the Twin Galaxes crowd--after a fiasco in which he's suspected of receiving illicit help from Mr. Awesome--and he meets Day and the various arcade champions who now reunite at Fun World to relive old rivalries. Wiebe is friendly, humble, and somewhat, I think, perplexed at the subculture into which he's being initiated. Strangest of all is Mitchell, who keeps his distance from Wiebe, tracking his progress through the aid of his friends and attempting to steal his thunder with a submitted high-score tape which may or may not be faked. The film inevitably builds toward a final battle between Wiebe and Mitchell for the title of "King of Kong"--the main event occurs when the Guiness Book of World Records agrees to hold a competition at Fun World with Day as ref--but the wonderful thing is how the action then unfolds, as people act like people (or, at times, like kids).
The King of Kong, Seth Gordon's first film, follows Spellbound and Wordplay as part of the more popular and profitable of new documentary subgenres, the geek-sports movie. Indeed, Gordon confessed on Elvis Mitchell's "The Treatment" program that originally he intended the film to be nothing more than a chronicle of arcade competition, and it is, in a way, a Rocky on a comically miniature scale. But Gordon couldn't predict what would happen, or how his subjects would behave, and he was accidentally served a cracking-good story. While Wiebe increasingly steps out of his bubble and overcomes his fears to put his skills to a public test, Billy Mitchell behaves erratically, clearly uncomfortable when he's asked to do something other than deliver his Chuck Norris-style one-liners and cocky platitudes. Mitchell's obviously used self-confidence and his powers of persuasion to benefit his hot sauce business, and flouts his money to offer "bounties" for high scores through Twin Galaxies, but when he's confronted with Wiebe, a real threat to his title, he becomes increasingly childish, and the film's plot strays from the predictable sports-movie structure. The big question becomes: will the final battle even take place at all, or will Mitchell be the one who chokes?
What I'm not getting across--and what too many of the reviews are failing to get across--is that The King of Kong plays like a pitch-perfect Christopher Guest comedy. In fact, I enjoyed it a lot more than Guest's last effort, For Your Consideration; sometimes, in Guest's grasping for versimilitude, he just can't live up to the absurdity of reality. For one thing, the dialogue in King of Kong is more funny because it's coming out of real people's mouths. Real, oblivious mouths. When Wiebe and his wife embark on the long drive to the Guiness-sponsored competition at Fun World, his very young daughter, poring over the world records, says, "Some people will ruin their lives to get in this book." To which Wiebe has no response. If that had been a line in Little Miss Sunshine, no one would have believed it. Or there's Mr. Awesome's sincere explanation of why one shouldn't get "chumpatized." Or the moment when, after one of Wiebe's middle-school students is told that he's a Donkey Kong champ, spontaneously exclaims, "All the science teachers here are weird!" Or anything involving Mitchell's wife, surely to be played by Jennifer Coolidge in the Guest remake.
Actually, the film will be remade, but by Gordon himself, who's understandably taking his career where the opportunities lie. It's a bit difficult to see how a version with actors could be any better. Will it star Ben Stiller as Billy Mitchell and Vince Vaughn as Steve Wiebe, but playing duelling pinball wizards (so that you can call it "Pinballz")? I hope not. Thank God audiences are actually going to documentaries these days, so they can see the original.