Well, thank God for accurate titles. “Zero Charisma” takes the viewer into the world of hardcore roleplaying games, this one ruled over by a behemoth named Scott (Sam Eidson). A twentysomething living with his grandmother and barely earning a living wage at a local donut shop, nothing much seems to faze Scott, who happily tends to his world of fantasy and escapism, disappearing into his dingy room of models, science fiction, and the elaborate “Dungeons And Dragons”-type RPG he’s devised. This game has allowed the bullish Scott to basically enslave his four close friends, and they’ve been participating in Game Night for three years, wrapping up a campaign for Scott, the dungeon master.
Credit to Eidson’s performance that much of this character’s petty one-upmanship feels accurate and lived-in. Nerds no longer hide their interests like teenagers shuffling their pornography under the bed. A general acceptance of toys, fantasy and superheroes has resulted in Scott and his type, in real life and in the film, playing the bully, making up for lost time. There’s not much that Scott likes: he curses popular online game “World Of Warcraft” and scoffs at the successful comics and hobby shop he frequents because of their active gaming scene which seems to have blossomed due to an all-inclusive approach to incoming gamers. He has a poster on the wall for a film called “Ninjas Vs. Zombies.” It’s easy to imagine him sitting through that film mocking it and discussing its flaws. It’s also easy to imagine he owns the DVD.
The game’s integrity is breached when one participant, a middle-aged husband, opts to drop out when he learns his wife is leaving him. Real life just got too real for this pretend-adventurer, and, in the film’s most knowing moment, he places a hand on Scott’s shoulder, gently acknowledging that this overgrown manchild couldn’t possibly understand the dynamics of a relationship (when chastised for never having a girlfriend, he defensively replies, “It’s because I don’t want to get tied down, you know that!”). The search for a new player begins, but Scott is ultimately just doomed to reject every viable candidate.
The cruelest thing to do would be to re-imagine the film from the perspective of Miles (Garrett Graham), the eventual new player. Miles is cool as a cucumber, a good looking hipster with the slightest affectation of obnoxiousness. At first he seems like a ringer, his interest in this world tourist-y at best. Once he explains why, scientifically, the Millennium Falcon is faster than the USS Enterprise, all bets are off. Graham is quite good at playing someone who is superficially a good guy, but with a slight self-absorption that suggests he believes every compliment he receives.
Of course, maybe the cruelest thing to do would have been the best thing to do. Miles’ incursion into the game (he brings a six pack! Egads!) sends Scott into a tailspin of jealousy and hatred, one that finally allows his walls to come down. Each ensuing problem that emerges is his own fault, and he can’t seem to avoid placing his happiness, or even basic contentment, over the comfort of others. Being a “gamemaster” enhances his feelings of superiority over his friends. In real life, his job is miserable, his grandmother is insulting, and his visiting mother has just arrived to take some control over his sedentary lifestyle. In one of the film’s broader strokes, her new beau tries to talk to Scott about the Dallas Cowboys game. Scott thinks he’s talking about westerns.
Because of his physical stature, Scott seems like one of those new-wave nerds, one who never experienced bullying as a kid and now thinks his interests in cave trolls and fairies is legit, enough to block out his other responsibilities as an adult. Eidson gives him a believable rage, but little else. You end up siding with Miles and company when politeness breaks down and people begin to wish he would start growing up a bit. Scott is a sociopath, and the film’s dark tone and constantly (and cheaply) under-lit indoor sequences feel like the only real diagnosis the film presents. The direction from Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews, dry and punctuated by heavy metal bursts on the soundtrack, suggests they’re making a geek “Taxi Driver.”
Ultimately, there’s a
vibe to “Zero Charisma” that suggests it’s made by geeks and for geeks. It
would take a geek to notice some of the specific touches, like the
passive-aggressive judgment that comes from trying to be “true” friends
compared to non-geeks. But mostly you’re stunned that Scott is basically let
off the hook, particularly in a third act that forces a way to make the
otherwise-normal Miles into something of a villain. There’s a unique lead
character here, but mostly in regards to how repellant and obnoxious he is, and
how he spends a good 90% of this movie set in his ways, loudly cursing and
continuing to slave over his garbage RPG, which doesn’t seem to have any real
fans. There’s a nugget of truth in this film’s depiction of nerd life, as there
should be, given that it’s produced by Nerdist Industries. It doesn’t excuse
that fact that it’s an ugly, unpleasant viewing experience, one that sees geek
culture as a hateful cesspool of exclusion and juvenility, miserable to
experience first-hand. Congratulations? [D]