At the outset, this low-fi gem from godfather of mumblecore Andrew Bujalski ( Funny Ha Ha , Mutual Appreciation ) seems to go out of its way to appear uninviting. Shot on fuzzy black-and-white video and set in the early ’80s, it’s a pseudo-documentary centred on the Annual North American Computer Chess Tournament.
Our host is chess master Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary), a man spectacularly lacking in charisma. Proceedings open with a stilted panel discussion. Excitement? Barely discernible. But it’s not long before things heat up – in a uniquely deadpan fashion.
Bujalski imposes a structure of sorts; taking place in an Austin hotel, the tournament comprises a five-round artificial-intelligence face-off, set to climax with the winning chess program taking on Henderson himself in a battle of man versus machine. But plot proves almost incidental as events sprawl in appealingly random directions.
There are technical meltdowns and human tantrums, a plague of cats, a religious cult and a solitary female programmer (Robin Schwartz) who creates an unwanted stir… and all before things take a sci-fi-esque turn for the even stranger.
To populate his peculiar universe, Bujalski has assembled a cast combining (vaguely) familiar faces ( Dazed And Confused ’s Wiley Wiggins) with first-timers, several of whom are real-life computing professionals.
Computer Chess takes place at a time before geek became chic, yet avoids easy laughs at the expense of its socially awkward characters. Though it can be classified as a comedy (just), the film is pleasingly underplayed, filtering its madness through a poker-faced prism.
One of the key characters is Michael, an independent programmer cum chancer who spends much of the movie scouring the hotel for a place to rest his head. Yours will be left refreshed – and slightly befuddled – after it’s been for a spin around these captivating corridors.