‘Zero Charisma’ Review
Scott Weidemeyer (Sam Eidson) is an antisocial curmudgeon who lives with his grandmother and spends his entire week looking forward to that one night when he plays Dungeons & Dragons with his four nerd buddies. For a powerless guy like Scott, who works as a donut store delivery boy, D&D is the ultimate power fantasy: as the Game Master of the group, he creates elaborate storylines and manipulates the lives of dozens of characters. It's the place where someone who has no control over his life gets to feel in control for a change.
The very funny and very wise 'Zero Charisma' is what happens when that refuge from the real world comes under attack. When Scott's D&D group loses one of its members, he finds a replacement at the local RPG store: Miles (Garrett Graham), who, as it turns out belongs to a new breed of geek. He knows 'Star Trek' and 'Star Wars,' but he has a girlfriend. His website, the oxymoronically titled GeekChic.com, gets hundreds of thousands of hits a day. He drinks and throws parties (that don't involve tabletop games). For a nerd, he actually seems kind of... cool. And his arrival in the game throws it into chaos. Scott may be the Game Master but he finds himself increasingly marginalized as his buddies look more and more to Miles for guidance, advice and friendship.
Some audiences will describe Miles as a "fake geek," a dismissive title that's become a standard attack against anyone -- most commonly girls -- who "pretends" to be a geek for the purposes of selling something to a nerd audience. But Miles is a pretty nerdy dude in his own right: in one of 'Zero Charisma's' funniest scenes, he settles the age-old debate of which spaceship is faster, the Starship Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon, with a hefty dose of mathematical reasoning and smidge of hardcore dork logic.
No, Miles isn't a fake geek. He's something else: a true blue geek with enough good looks and social skills to pass for a normal person. To use a nerd metaphor: the X-Men are filled with mutants, special humans granted by genetics with superhuman powers. Some of these mutants, like Rogue, can pass for ordinary people when they're not absorbing energy. Others, like Beast, were gifted (or cursed) with powers that permanently transformed their appearance (with giant hands and feet, and, later, blue fur). Rogue and Beast are both mutants, but one has it just a bit easier than the other because they can hide their difference a little better. Beast, no matter how hard he tries, will never fully fit in.
You see where this is going. With his stocky build, thinning hair and goatee, single, fingerless leather glove, and endless assortment of heavy metal T-shirts, Scott will always stand out in a crowd, and as a tabletop gamer in a video game world, he belongs to an increasingly endangered brand of nerdery, one defined by knowledge, passion and someone's status as a social pariah. Naturally, losing his last bastion of pride doesn't sit well with Scott, building to a massive blowup between these two brands of dweeb.
I've talked a lot about the ideas behind 'Zero Charisma' while not talking a whole lot about the movie so far -- which sort of does for pop culture dorks what 'Big Fan' did for sports obsessives: examines their passion with equal amounts of empathy and satire. There's no question that Scott is a pompous jerk, a rude grandson and a bad friend. But he's also someone who really and truly loves this hobby, and he reacts as many of us would if we felt like that one thing that made us special was being taken from us.
The film's screenplay, by co-director Andrew Matthews, is maybe the best one I saw at SXSW this year. It doles out heaping portions of comedy and tragedy, and strikes the right balance between celebrating Scott's enthusiasm and condemning his behavior, and it captures all the specificities of this kind of dead-end dork lifestyle -- or so I'm told by dorks that I know, because clearly I know nothing about this kind of stuff. Some of the humor will go over the heads of mainstream audiences; then again, I've never really played D&D in my life, and I laughed throughout anyway. If you've ever felt like an outcast in any way, you'll find something to relate to.
Even with that screenplay, though, the movie wouldn't work without Eidson in the lead. Somehow he manages to be both magnetic and repellant all at once, which is precisely what the role requires. We cheer Scott's triumphs, and we also cheer his failures (he is, after all, kind of a jerk) but by the time 'Zero Charisma' ends we've grown to like him a little more and understand him, too. Life, 'Zero Charisma' teaches us, is a 20-sided crap shoot. But when you truly become the Game Master you can always change what qualifies as a winning roll.
'Zero Charisma' premiered at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’