The first thought upon sitting down for “Computer Chess” might be one of snobby resistance. Director Andrew Bujalski has been credited as the godfather of mumblecore, a movement that has produced a number of interesting pictures but one that still invites scorn for supposedly lowering the discourse of independent filmmaking. As usual, here he’s working with a collection of non-actors, though they may be the least photogenic bunch he’s ever shot: there’s certainly no one as bewitching as “Funny Ha Ha” star Kate Dollenmayer, or even as intriguingly polysexual as Alex Karpovsky in “Beeswax.” It’s a period picture taking place in 1980 and the film is shot on video using the technology of that era, giving the picture a fuzzy cable access look. Movie tickets cost a lot of money so when you see a visual like that, there’s a tendency to blanch, but what does it mean that with all those ingredients, “Computer Chess” might be the most charmingly entertaining, funniest movie of the summer?
Bujalski’s film almost entirely takes place within the confines of a shabby motel, where a collection of tech geeks have converged to design code that can allow computers to compete with humans in a game of chess. Far from trading barbs and getting laid, this collection of CPU jockeys are as awkwardly uncomfortable with each other as they are in their own skin. Their discussions are single-minded, concentrated on the evolution of this technology and its ability to match our abilities. In this world, nothing is handheld or pocket-sized, and computers are massive, cumbersome pieces of equipment that we’re almost openly daring (some pessimistically) to reach our level.
Though an ensemble picture, the events mostly center on Peter (Patrick Riester), an anxious young programmer who is overwhelmed by the competitive nature of the weekend. His conversations often involve him allowing another, more forceful personality to lead the dance, and more than once he seems overwhelmed, enough that he almost ends up in bed with two pushy New Age swingers sharing the space during off-hours for spacey healing sessions. Peter mostly develops chemistry with mousy Shelly (Robin Schwartz), who finds herself constantly trumpeted as the first female at the annual event the way someone would celebrate a dog would ride a bicycle. Her presence is a tell, of course, one suggested in dialogue at one point when she is condescendingly told to bring more female friends; the world these characters inhabit is expanding.
Proof of this includes one blustery groupie, a portly, aggressive man who tools around the chess matches as a borderline luddite, trading joints and spreading Cold War theories. His presence is less a member of the group and more a figure of orbit, allowing most of the characters to cross paths, none more so than the unforgettably grody Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige), a self-absorbed attention-hog who refuses to admit (to himself?) that he hasn’t even bothered to pay for a motel room. After failed attempts to interfere with the lives of everyone at the conference, he existentially wanders the halls like a misplaced ghost seeking purpose. Paige is having a ball playing a character who seems perplexed that people don’t openly welcome his presence; equally enthused is James Curry, who plays Les, a portly British programmer who pops his collar after hours and exhibits a chatty nerd sex appeal.
What Bujalski’s film dances around is that, in part, these guys are the architects of the modern world. What’s amusing is how they think they know that, but not in how we’re aware: there’s endless whispers about the interest shown by the military, with a lot of conspiratorial double-speak about the interest of shadowy figures that likely represents the efforts of a few pointdexters to sex up a weekend getaway. Instead, the bulk of the three day retreat is spent pushing and pulling massive computer equipment up stairs, onto elevators, and into trucks. Well, that and keeping the kleptomaniacal Papageorge out of their rooms.
Bujalski has shown himself to be a filmmaker of increasing skill with each new picture. And despite the greatness of this film, there’s something amusing about the idea that he probably feels a black and white shot-on-outdated-video story about nerds in a motel playing computer chess is maybe his most commercial idea. Upon seeing the film, however, that’s no longer a gag. His earlier work marked Bujalski as a skilled, interesting filmmaker, and the endlessly surprising, often riotously funny “Computer Chess” basks in the details of a group of men who, at a key point in history, are asking themselves not only if they can accomplish something, but why, and what it means to their current generation. It’s the first sign that “good” is no longer the template; Bujalski is now a great filmmaker. [A]