20 years after the release of Kevin Smith’s “Clerks,” the idea of sympathizing with the plight of pop culture-obsessed bottom feeders stuck in mundane jobs has lost none of its potency. These aren’t easy characters to write without falling prey to condescension, given the clichés associated with largely male crowd of unhygienic sci-fi/fantasy lovers who’d rather waste their days at minimum wage jobs debating “Star Wars” trivia than anything else. Smith’s “Clerks” screenplay managed to find the humor in its protagonists’ fanaticism while making their passion infectious, grounding the story in its rambling anti-heroes likability.
“Zero Charisma,” a fascinating portrait of an initially stereotypical mouth-breathing man-child addicted to role-playing games of his own invention, goes one step further: Directors Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews’ directorial debut (from Matthews’ screenplay) centers on a highly unlikable character who has alienated himself from social responsibility — and forces you to sympathize with him against all odds.
The movie’s first shot reveals Scott Weidemeyer (Sam Eidson in a fantastic breakthrough performance) as an unseemly sight: a portly, goateed, leather-clad thirtysomething who lives his mom, bopping his head to blaring heavy metal tracks while wandering the aisles of a grocery store. He’s stocking up on junk food for another late night RPG session with his equally disgruntled peers, a whiny clique that gathers in Scott’s living room to a play game that he invented and lords over with dictatorial excitement. His bumper sticker blares, “Because I’m the Game Master…THAT’S WHY!” It’s all the justification he needs at this point — at least when in the safety zone of his home, where his cohorts toss their dice and wait for their leader to announce the outlandish next steps in their journey across the board as he makes them up on the spot.
As “Zero Charisma” continues to flesh out Scott’s life, the more unsettling details of his ostracized existence come to the fore. He lost his job at the local game shop and faces derision from the same community of Dungeons & Dragons players that fuels his hobby. His snippy grandmother (a hilariously no-nonsense Anne Gee Byrd) tolerates his slumming but never hesitates to lob insults. “You and your friends pretending to be elves and fairies is disturbing,” she barks at him when he asks her to quiet down during one of their sessions.
Scott’s dysfunctional mother (Cyndi Williams) eventually drops into town with a new lover, scheming to take over their grandmother’s house and kick Scott to the curb. Gradually, it becomes clear that Scott’s angry, standoffish personality and investment in his games provide him with a makeshift armor against the more daunting ingredients of the world bearing down on him. As elements come into play, the initial image of the hard-rocking loser starts to evolve into a sadder portrait of denial about adult anxieties. When Scott brings “neo-nerd” Miles (Garrett Graham) into his gaming circle, he immediately feels threatened: A slender, chicly dressed hipster with a widely read pop culture blog, Miles has managed to translate Scott’s sensibilities into a fashion statement, precisely the sort of characterization that “Zero Charisma” nimbly avoids in its depiction of Scott’s life.
Scott’s mounting disdain for Miles builds to a series of cringe-inducing encounters the call to mind the pileup of awkward showdowns in a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode — right through the unnerving slapstick finale, where it’s hard to say whether Scott actually takes control of his various problematic situations or makes peace with being trapped by a lost cause. With its savvy use of music cues and close ups of Scott’s usually seething expressions, “Zero Charisma” manages to inhabit Scott’s inability to determine exactly how he feels about his inhibited state.
There are echoes of Ronald Bronstein’s “Frownland” in the way the directors stick so closely to one man’s sorrowful predicament until it takes on a heightened realism, though “Zero Charisma” opts for a more traditional story and has a playful exterior: The pop culture debates are genuine and Scott’s egomaniacal rampage has an underlying comic appeal even if it points to melancholic undertones. But it’s that precise balance that makes it stand out as such a compelling portrait.
“It’s your own goddamn fault no one likes you,” Scott’s told at one point, and he eventually takes that to heart. The man remains an outsider because it’s the only certainty in his life. In a compelling epilogue, he appears thoroughly committed to his private hell, but whether or not he sees it that way is solely determined by the next roll of the dice.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Released this week on VOD by Tribeca Film, “Zero Charisma” opens in New York on Friday ahead of a nationwide expansion. Though its theatrical prospects will be limited, decent word of mouth and interest in the subject matter may lead to decent business on VOD.