There’s humor and insight to be found in a group of early-1980s computer nerds going to a convention to see whose computer is the best chess player. Computer Chess has this opportunity, but writer-director Andrew Bujalski is so woefully inept that his movie veers between sleep-inducing and excruciatingly awkward. Bujalski has the tools to make his movie interesting, and he misses almost every chance to bring life into his mess of a picture. His scattershot style never hits the mark, the stilted performances create even more distance from the audience, and resulting experience is like spending time with a dull and graceless human being for 90 minutes.
In the early 1980s, a group of engineers have gathered at a hotel for an annual conference where they compete to see who has the best chess program. The chess programs only play other chess programs, so humans have been removed from the equation except for conference leader and grandmaster Henderson (Gerald Peary), who will play the winning computer. A couple of colorful characters make their way into the conference like the CalTech team behind the reigning champ, “TSAR”; an MIT team that boasts the competition’s very first woman; and the prickly Papageorge (Myles Paige) who can’t find a room, and is being stalked by random cats. The hotel is also playing host to an emotional group therapy program that engages in creepy acts like reenacting births and molesting warm bread.
Despite the oddities filling his picture, Bujalski rarely brings them together in any thoughtful or humorous manner. There’s a nice bit of nerdy humor littered throughout such as one character being lectured by his professor, and told “I do not think Tesla is a good role model for your career. That’s the road to madness.” Peary also does a solid job at showing Henderson as a blowhard buffoon, but more often than not, Bujalski lets his characters drone on and on, behave like social maladroits, and wander off onto random tangents like Papageorge running into hordes of cats that come out of nowhere.
Bujalski seems to be at a loss on how best to tell his story. He uses an era-appropriate documentary style of black-and-white, academy ratio filming, but then he removes the documentarian. We don’t know who’s holding the camera, but we constantly see a character whose job is to document the conference. Rather than try to find any consistency in his story, Bujalski scrambles for stylistic flourishes that never work. When a grad student is talking to his professor about TSAR, Bujalski goes for a split-screen even though the characters are in the same location and aren’t at cross-purposes. The movie reaches the point where the audio drops out of sync, and there’s honestly no telling if it was intentional.
Computer Chess would be maddeningly frustrating if it weren’t so lackadaisical. The pacing is non-existent, most of the characters lack personality, and Bujalski somehow finds a way to make even the competition feel dull. Almost everyone in the film seems as bored as we are, and any flicker of life feels forced. It seems like Bujalski was attempting to show the emotional disconnect between people by showing those who have invested into heartless technology and those who have gone overboard to the point where a married couple will try to seduce some random nerd. Sadly, without a consistent vision and competent execution, Computer Chess is nothing more than a failed program.
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