You need no particular knowledge or affection for the game of kings to appreciate the whimsy of “Computer Chess.”
The genius of this indie is its cleverness in capturing the driest of times and the dullest of people in a faux documentary about the early days of man versus machine at the chessboard.
“Computer Chess” does not reach the heights of the grand master of faux, Christopher Guest, whose “Best in Show” and “Waiting For Guffman” are brilliant studies in satire. But director Andrew Bujalski makes a serious play for his own place in the pantheon of hysterically pretentious pretend.
Bujalski, who also wrote the film, takes us to the early 1980s, when computer nerds were not high-tech, high-rolling whiz kids with stock options in the millions. Instead, he’s populated the place with the pocket-protector bunch complete with Coke-bottle glasses, bad haircuts and a perpetual state of social unease.
A few of the brightest — MIT and Caltech sensations among them — have gathered for a regional weekend conference to pit their programming skills and their latest chess software against one another. The winner will take on a chess master, an old-school conventional type portrayed by Gerald Peary.
As Henderson, sporting the requisite department-store suit, white shirt and dark tie, he also is the convention’s host, making the bold prediction that it will be 1984 before a computer will best him.
In real life, it would be the late 1980s before machine would beat man at this particular game and another decade before the famed 1997 face-off between world champ Garry Kasparov and Deep Blue. The win went to Blue.
Bujalski is not interested in such high-profile doings. His film is very much on computer chess in the trench warfare stage. The hard drives are still gigantic, waist-high and require a couple of guys to push into place. The “play” itself is spit out in computer code with a person moving the indicated piece on an actual board.
Lurking around the edges is a cameraman (Kevin Bewersdorf) with a first-generation camcorder recording “history in the making.” The film extends the effect — grainy black-and-white, hand-held shake and dizzying pans. Instead of a distraction, the found-footage feel only adds to a sense we’ve been taken to a place out of time. Helping is director of photography Matthias Grunsky, costume designer Colin Wilkes and production designer Michael Bricker’s keen attention to detail.
The chess match is not the only game in town; the competition is sharing hotel space with a couples-therapy group. And much is made of the lone female programmer, a convention first. But Shelly (Robin Schwartz) is barely audible — this is still a boys’ club.
The focus soon narrows to one team — a more conventional group anchored by Peter (Patrick Riester) and Martin (Wiley Wiggins) — and one rogue programmer named Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige). Things are not going well for either.
The actors have to walk a fine line between playing it straight while getting as close as possible to absurd. For the most part, they do a good job of it.
Scheduling issues provide additional complications in the plot. But these threads and the couples-therapy scenes feel more of an afterthought. When a couple tries to recruit one of the nerds for sex games, it threatens to destroy the illusion.
But I guess it is only fitting that a film about computers would have a few glitches.
* * * *
Cast: Patrick Riester, Myles Paige, Gordon Kindlmann, Robin Schwartz, Gerald Peary
Director: Andrew Bujalski
Running time: 1:32
Rated: Not rated