For All the Marbles

Yeah, life sucks. So you go to a life coach, a motivational person who is supposed to motivate you, give you a new outlook, a strategy to cope with your problems and what does he tell you — Be a winner. And what the hell does that mean?

By: NICK FEITEL

THE KING OF KONG:

A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS

Directed by Seth Gordon

Picturehouse

Opens Aug. 17

IFC Center

 

Suppose for a second that you're depressed. Job's a real piece, bad breakup last night, you just got three hours of sleep, and now you have to wait in line for your passport to go on a plane where the in-flight film is the sequel to the 2005 road comedy hit “Are We There Yet?” entitled “Are We Done Yet?” featuring Ice Cube.

 

Yeah, life sucks. So you go to a life coach, a motivational person who is supposed to motivate you, give you a new outlook, a strategy to cope with your problems and what does he tell you — Be a winner. And what the hell does that mean?

 

What being a winner constitutes, in at least one of its possible permutations, is the subject of the quirky, amusing new documentary by Seth Gordon, “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.” The film introduces us to the world of competitive classic video gaming, where die-hard fans practice, travel, and sweat to try to attain high scores on antiquated arcade machines from the '80s.

 

These gamers, with much the same intensity as poker champions or golf greats, log time at their arcades or at machines at home trying to outdo scores just recently set, by jumping over virtual barrels, hopping across virtual streets, or defending planet Earth from dire, imminent virtual harm.

These, my friends, are losers.

 

And the cast we are introduced to is irrefutable proof — they make themselves look sillier and sillier throughout the film with folk songs about Donkey Kong and their slavish devotion to their master gamers. And yet, what they are in pursuit of, unquestionably, is being a winner, getting that top score. Even though we see that these guys might be losers in the arena of life, in the arena of Q-Bert, the score might be quite different.

 

Our two main characters, Billy and Steve, are hardly the loserliest of the bunch. They still function on that fringe of society that intersects with gaming. Billy Mitchell is a chicken wing sauce distributor from Hollywood, Florida, whose skill at classic video games has brought him the attention of the nerd media and celebrities among his fellow gamers. Steve Wiebe is a middle school science teacher from Washington State who, having felt like a loser for much of his life, seeks solace in the arcade machine in his garage.

 

Facing each other, they compete for the highest score on the classic game Donkey Kong, the hardest of the old-generation arcade games, and we watch them squirm with the joystick and the tension of trying to be the best.

 

If this doesn't sound like enough for two hours of film, it's because it isn't. “King of Kong” is a threadbare 80 minutes with every dirty trick in the book to squeeze in time, like montages set to cheesy music, repeated shots, and CGI illustrations.

 

Still, the film is earnest and within it are many gems not to be missed. The players, particularly Billy, described throughout the film as a “jedi,” are so serious about what they are doing that they can't help but be funny and, at the same time, endearing.

 

The film in the end succeeds, unquestionably in this critic's opinion, for a few reasons. Obviously, it's funny and the audience will find the characters, particularly Steve, sympathetic, but it's more than that. The people in “King of Kong” just want to be winners in life in the way that they know how.

 

Being a winner could mean many things. It could mean a scratched lottery ticket, a hard-earned paycheck, or realizing that you love what you already have.

 

For these gamers/losers, winning means getting to that high score and

that next high score and never giving up. In this way, “King of Kong” suggests that we have our own ways of being winners, getting through the day, getting through the night, and getting through that in-flight movie.

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