The Austin Chronicle

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Rated PG-13, 79 min. Directed by Seth Gordon.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 17, 2007

Video games are the future of entertainment, we've been told time and again, but what of those hardy, semilost souls for whom those bulky, arcade-bound console games of yore – Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, Asteroids, et al. – remain the high point of pixelated pleasure? Not because they're retro-hip, ironic throwbacks or beeping, trilling arcade versions of Pleasantville's rose-tinted backward glancing but because they're the be-all and end-all of gaming itself? For them, the joystick retains its knobby, manly allure and is the obsessive-compulsive, attention-deficit dynamo required to make it to Donkey Kong's legendary, if little seen, "kill screen" (where the game itself essentially "gives up" and dies on the too-skilled player). The games have become an entire way of life, informing everything from wardrobes and hairstyles to the players' hypercompetitive, post-Dungeons & Dragons dorkiness. Don't stop believing? Perish the thought. The King of Kong is as winning, sweet, and occasionally disturbing a documentary about people for whom time has stopped somewhere around 1982 as you'd ever want to see. It both celebrates the iconoclastic (and, in hindsight, utterly American) stick-to-it-iveness that makes otherwise (sort of) sensible adults vie for the title of World's Best Donkey Kong Player. Director Gordon lucked out, big time: He presents us with the egocentric current title-holder Billy Mitchell, the de facto villain of the piece, who not only sports Steve Perry's blow-dried locks but also the requisite Eighties stoner panache. Mitchell sets himself up as the antagonist the moment his goateed mug scrunches up in overconfident distaste at the mention of The King of Kong's lower-middle-class hero: the beefy, enormously charming Steve Wiebe, a high school science teacher and perpetual also-ran. Wiebe has a doting spouse and a handful of kids who are there, on camera, demanding, um, "toilet assistance" while their dad is hunkered down in the garage with a video camera that records his every onscreen dodge and feint as he bests Mitchell's two-decades-old Donkey Kong high score of a million points. From here on out, The King of Kong is pure, goofy fun, shot through with a geeky sort of melancholy as Wiebe tries – hard and with little success – to get Mitchell to play him face-to-face at the World Donkey Kong Championships. You end up rooting for the good guy, sure, but you never feel the often jerky Mitchell is anything less than a human being, warts and all. (Donkey Kong tournaments in the theatre lobby before the Friday-Sunday evening shows. Steve Wiebe will attend the Sunday evening shows. See p.51 of this week's Screens section for an interview with Wiebe.) SXSW Film Presents

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