4:54 PM EDT, September 26, 2013
Very little in the movies is harder to get right than very recent history. "Computer Chess," a fantastically deadpan comedy from the writer-director Andrew Bujalski, gets its chosen corner of the early 1980s very, very right — and on a wee budget, apparently spent on the peerlessly unsightly wristwatches of the day.
The filmmaker and his cinematographer, Matthias Grunsky, shot "Computer Chess" on bulky, boxy video equipment of the period, working almost entirely in the slightly smudgy, grayish black-and-white modern audiences associate with "found"-footage horror. There's no horror here. But Bujalski, one of the best of the low-fi observational humorists in American independent film, bravely allows a dash of science fiction and a hint of the ineffable and unknowable to creep into this film's land of the giants.
In this case the giants are early Reagan-era computer monitors, first seen as the socially maladroit attendees of a computer-chess programming convention check into their drab highway-adjacent motel, lugging their computers ("igloo-sized," in Bujalski's choice description). The visitors hope to prevail in the weekend chess championship. Machine versus human: the new/old story.
These are fledgling digital pioneers trying to hack their way through an analog forest. With a side-winding, seemingly accidental approach, "Computer Chess" introduces its lineup, notably Peter (Patrick Riester), an easily spooked young man living behind an enormous pair of owlish glasses. He's a computer wizard on one of the competing teams, and the least comfortable of all the visitors in the company of humanoids. Naturally Bujalski finds a way to place this character in the company, and eventually on the bed, of a pair of genial swingers (Chris Doubek and Cyndi Williams) attending an EST-like encounter therapy session at the same motel. There's a sole, conspicuous female programmer at the motel, played by Robin Schwartz, and the men buzz around her, tentatively, unclear whether she belongs to the same species.
Wiley Wiggins, a familiar face from Richard Linklater's "Dazed and Confused" a generation ago, is a quiet riot as a mopey-looking psychologist. The most flagrant malcontent of the bunch, played by Myles Paige, calls himself a freelance computer expert. (This was when they were rare, remember.) Supremely above it all, he crashes the convention, can't find a room and ends up bugging everyone to distraction.
Unlike Bujalski's previous efforts, most recently the lovely "Beeswax," "Computer Chess" operates from a premise that could've taken any number of other directions, from a Christopher Guest mockumentary to a broad, star-driven Vince Vaughn-y Zach Galifianakis-esque Hollywood comedy. But it didn't go that way. Bujalski forces nothing, while allowing lots of space for his largely nonprofessional cast to find a groove. Some performances (like film professor and critic Gerald Peary as the stuffy overseer) land in the good-try range, but others, particularly Riester, hold the screen and provide a kind of weird, funny tension.
"You wanna know the real future of computers?" asks one of the guys in "Computer Chess." He answers his own question: "Dating." Pause. Another man asks: "You mean computers are going to start dating each other?" The film is full of exchanges like that — not ba-DUM-bum banter, but strangely plausible dialogue spoken by genuine characters of another time and place, on the cusp of something bigger than themselves.
"Computer Chess" - 3 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating (some nudity and language)
Running time: 1:32
Opens: Friday at Music Box Theatre
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