Kriss Schludermann and Tom Fletcher star as competitors in 'Computer Chess.' (Detroit Film Theatre)
“Computer Chess” is a bit too self-consciously odd for its own good. While its eccentricities can be amusing, they’re ultimately wearing.
On the one hand, the film, written and directed by Andrew Bujalski, is a faux documentary in the style of Christopher Guest, centered around the geeks and nerds at a computer chess competition in the early ’80s. But on the other, it seems to be satirizing metaphysical, indie sci-fi films such as “Upstream Color.”
Either way, things get confusing — and often boring. The problem with showing how dull a panel of computer chess experts might be is that it can in fact be dull itself, and while that may be some sort of meta joke, dull is still dull.
Where the film does work is in its wonderfully awkward characters, most played by nonactors, some of whom are actual computer types. The silliness and the sci-fi elements undercut what might have been some pretty sweet portraits.
As it is, a dozen or so teams of computer programmers, each trying to write programs that will help a computer ultimately beat a human at chess, have gathered to compete with one another in a low-grade motel setting. Their enthusiastic host is Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary, a film professor and critic in real life), a chess grandmaster who has never been beaten by a computer.
The group includes a shy British programmer (James Curry, an actual British programmer); a lone, meek female student (Robin Schwartz, a film editor); a computer guru and former competition winner (Gordon Kindlmann, a computer professor); and a conspiracy theorist (Jim Lewis, a writer) who’s there because he thinks computers will lead to the apocalypse.
The black-and-white camera lingers most on a painfully shy grad student named Peter (Patrick Reister, a film editor) who’s trying to deal with a rebellious program that seems to want to play humans rather than other computers, and Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige, a gardener and chocolatier!), a blowhard self-proclaimed genius who doesn’t have his own hotel room and wanders the halls at night.
Again, the characters are endearingly odd; the paces they go through are not. Peter has an encounter with some would-be swingers, Papageorge undergoes rebirth therapy, there are rambling discussions about artificial intelligence in which very little intelligence is apparent. When Papageorge finally does get a room, it is inexplicably filled with cats. And don’t even ask about the hotel’s hooker.
In the end, you simply wish the characters (and the actors) were in a more subtle and focused film. “Computer Chess” plays a risky game. Unfortunately, it loses.
At the Detroit