Zero Charisma, directed by Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews, is well-drawn and funny, but ultimately a little bit bleak. The film follows Sam Eidson as Scott, an uber-controlling Game Master who is losing control. Scott is surly, overweight, unkempt, and balding. He lives with his grandmother and is marginally employed. He has very strong opinions about MMO RPGs. If you sat next to him at a Con, you would probably want to spray him with Febreeze, and if you refused to give up your seat for him, he would totally stab you in the eye. He's pretty much a stereotype, but we all probably know someone just like him.
The story gets going when a player drops out of Scott's game. They've been playing one continuous adventure--written by Scott, who's yet to find a publisher--for three years. The first big laugh of the film comes when Scott is making phone calls to fill the spot. No one wants to join his game, and it's pretty clear why. When Scott meets Miles (Garret Graham), who played D&D in high school and wants to get back into a game, things begin to unravel.
Miles wears flannel and cardigans and cool guy glasses. He is a cool, hipster geek. He brings beer, he can prove--with math!--that the Millennium Falcon is faster than the Enterprise, he doesn't take the game seriously, and he is not afraid of Scott. He also foments rebellion amongst the other players, who are in awe of him.
Miles shows up on the scene at about the same time Scott's Grandma, Wanda, has a stroke, which brings the return of Barbara, Scott's horrid, selfish bitch of a mother. Barbara (Cyndi Williams) abandoned Scott to go "grow weed in Mexico" and hasn't redeemed herself in the intervening years. Her casual cruelty and selfishness go a long way toward explaining Scott's rage. Did I mention that she is the worst?
With Miles challenging him on game nights and Barbara invading his space at home, Scott loses what little control he has over his life, and acts out in a big way. I say "acts out" because that's how you describe children throwing tantrums, and that's the best way I can think to describe Scott, which is why, even though I laughed, hard, through the movie, the second half was actually really upsetting.
The movie nails the details that make Scott's life seem so small, and my hat is off to production designer John Parker. Scott's tiny room, crammed with posters and tiny game characters, made me feel claustrophobic, and it was easy to transfer that feeling to Scott. Elisa Garza's wardrobe choices give the audience an instant visual read of the characters. The gags all work, too, even the hackneyed tropes that shouldn't.
The acting felt a little bit stilted at first, but I stopped noticing about ten minutes in. Eidson is mostly a rude ball of barely concealed rage, but when he talks about the ancient ritual of communal storytelling, you can see why he first loved gaming, even if now all he uses it for is control. He is at times awkward to watch and sometimes unconnected with the other actors, which is distracting until you realize it's probably intentional. Graham is really appealing at first, and then slowly reveals his superior douchiness, which is tricky to play. Brock England is fantastic as Wayne, Scott's closest friend/toady, and makes a fairly one-note character seem real. Google lists Williams as a voice actor, and that makes sense. Her line readings were fine, but her connection to the other actors was nil. I never understood Wanda's loyalty to Barbara.
Scott does manage to find some level of contentment at the end, but the short coda does little to ameliorate the pervasive sense of paralysis around the character. He is stuck, and he's going to stay stuck, and that's a bummer, even if the movie mines it for laughs. Watch Zero Charisma if you're in the mood for laughter through ennui, but not if you just want a rollicking good time.
Zero Charisma opens in theaters on Friday, and is available now on VOD.