It’s great to see that a film based around the early 80s race to build chess playing computers isn’t afraid to be nerdy, obtuse, and at some moments deliberately embarrassing. From mumblecore pioneer Andrew Bujalski comes this freewheeling, largely plotless mockumentary look at a bunch of programmers hanging out at a cheap motel trying to create the first ever artificial intelligence capable of besting a human opponent in the world’s most popular and timeless board game.
Shot using almost entirely using fuzzy, full framed, and period appropriate black and white video, Bujalski’s Computer Chess moves in and out of the lives of competing tech schools and programmers all vying for a $7,500 cash prize and a shot at the event’s sceptical host and human chess master, Pat Henderson (played by real life film critic Gerald Peary with gleefully disdainful aplomb).
Pitched somewhere between a Christopher Guest production and a new school sketch comedy film that’s just to be weird for the sake of being weird, Bujalski is content to simply pack his film with nothing but asides happening in and around the event. One team has been having a severe problem controlling their malfunctioning program. There’s a bizarre kind of hippy swingers convention happening at the same time that keeps running afoul of and trying to bring a couple of the programmers into their fold. There’s a prescient and sly conversation about how online dating is the future of technology Then there’s the cheapskate, holier than thou independent programmer with no affiliation (Myles Paige, in the film’s most hilarious standout performance) who can’t afford his own room, steals someone’s drugs, and constantly runs afoul of the numerous stray cats in the hotel that may or may not even really be there.
Bujalski takes about thirty minutes or so to find his footing with the loose material and everything gets settled about twenty minutes before the film ultimately ends, but there are a lot of nice touches along the way. He definitely has a harness over the awkwardness of the whole endeavour and the world he creates is gleefully dorky. From a host that spouts dubious facts (like the first recorded example of computer chess being played by Napoleon), purposely anachronistic looks at how the future might be, and some clever “blink and you’ll miss them” sight gags, Bujalski’s ragged assembly of sourced footage definitely caters to the crowd who wishes these kind of endeavours had more intellectually stimulating material to chew on. To everyone’s credit, no one is ever afraid of making the audience think about the jokes and situations in play, and Bujalski lets everyone play each scene at the speed of life, which has always been one of his strong suits across his career.
In the end through, despite all of its bravery, experimentalism, and thoughtfulness, it’s still as uneven as any mainstream sketch comedy film would be. Not every joke hits the mark or is a side splitter, and while the film doesn’t always swing for the fences and aim for the gut every time, it’s still easy to separate the dud jokes from the ones that work. It’s just the nature of this kind of “throw everything at the glass and see what sticks” style of comedy. It still has more ambition than most films of this ilk, though, and if anything its already cultish success on the indie scene should lead the more adventurous to seek out Bujalski’s true masterpieces: 2002’s Funny Ha Ha and 2009’s criminally overlooked Beeswax. While those were great all around movies, Computer Chess needs to lean a bit too heavily on period nostalgia at times to truly break out and dazzle. It’s still a lot better than most comedies that audiences have been subjected to this summer.