The temptation is to use a certain nine-letter word when describing this movie. Using that word is accurate but might cause some to skip it and others to knock it without even seeing it.
Why dance around the v-i-d-e-o-g-a-m-e descriptor? Because Seth Gordon's film is not so much about the "video" part of that word as it is about the games we play in our lives: games of self-deception, self-delusion, and self-involvement.
But mostly because The King of Kong is so entertaining and truthful that I don't want anyone to miss it.
Gordon begins by introducing the world of Billy Mitchell, circa 1982. The first great videogame era was in full flower, and everybody and his brother was dropping quarters for Missile Commander, Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. It was cool to play video games, and the champions of those games became rock stars -- at least for a while.
Billy Mitchell was a god among men, a lean mean fighting machine with dazzling eye/hand coordination, capable of amassing more points on more games than anyone else on the planet. He cemented his reputation with an astonishing score on the notoriously difficult Donkey Kong. No one else could even come close to his mark.
Flash-forward twenty years. Mitchell is living the good life in Florida with a wife enhanced by plastic surgery and the certainty that he is still the hottest thing breathing air on this good earth. Meanwhile, three thousand miles away in Redmond, Washington, modest middle school science teacher and family man Steve Wiebe has installed a classic arcade box of Donkey Kong in his garage and begun racking up incredibly high scores on the game.
Will Mitchell's record stand?
The real kick comes from watching The King of Kong progress from a mass of images and interview snippets into an incredibly strong narrative that draws you closer and closer into the lives of the people involved.
Mitchell has attracted a flock of acolytes and oozes self-confidence and con-man charm. Wiebe has endured a string of disappointments yet has a healthy relationship with a supportive and loving wife and two children who unintentionally appear wise beyond their years. And that's not even touching on the supporting characters.
But that's not fair, because it makes real people sound like actors, and this is definitely a d-o-c-u-m-e-n-t-a-r-y. Yet it's so sharply edited and so funny (in a down-to-earth, off-handed manner) that it feels like it was scripted; narrative remake rights were snapped up quickly after its debut at Slamdance.
The film runs deep, far beyond the audience-friendly element of frequent humor, which carefully straddles the line between ribbing and ridicule. The degrees of personal self-examination on the part of Mitchell, Wiebe, and their friends and supporters varies widely. Some of them know how they appear to others, and either don't care or have to come to terms with their outsider status. The ones who appear the most clueless...well, to avoid being judgmental, we'll just leave them at clueless.
Seth Gordon's greatest accomplishment is that by the end of the film, each of the characters feels like someone you know. It may have been someone you met at school, someone you saw at the neighborhood arcade, someone you played videogames with at a friend's house --or it may have been your reflection in the mirror.
As my dad said after riding Space Mountain for the first time: "That was one hell of a ride."
I saw the second of two screenings at AFI Dallas last night, but mark your calendars: Picturehouse will release the film in the US starting August 17.