In the past few years (probably thanks to the internet), nerd culture has steadily shifted into the mainstream. Unavoidably, this leads to the point where nerd culture then becomes the subject of its own forms of pop culture, including sitcoms, reality television, and movies. The problem with this is that, unless nerd culture is incidental to the story, that culture is going say something about nerds. Although nerd culture in and of itself (comic books, tabletop gaming, fantasy novels, etc.) is nothing to be ashamed of, there are social tendencies that tend to take root in inclusive, tight-knit communities like fandom, which are -- and, look, I write for a DVD review site, so I'm speaking as much about myself as any reader -- worthy of criticism. It puts filmmakers in a tricky position: if their commentary has any substance, it can't pander to nerds, but if the filmmakers are trying to appeal to that audience, it also has to deliver its criticisms with sensitivity.
Zero Charisma makes a worthy attempt to strike the right balance, following Scott (Sam Eidson), who DMs a game he invented himself every Thursday night. The players, including Scott's best friend Wayne (Brock England), are generally willing to put up with Scott's narrow vision of how the story, now three years in, is meant to unfold, but things change when one of the group quits to work on his marriage. To fill the vacated seat, Scott befriends Miles (Garrett Graham), an average-looking guy he runs into by chance in a local game shop, but Scott's plan backfires when Miles turns out to be the Perfect Geek. Miles runs a hugely popular nerd website (think, say, Nerdist, who helped distribute the film), he's writing a comic book, he's thought of answers to trivia questions the gang has been fighting over for years, and he's got a beautiful wife, Kendra (Katie Folger), whereas Scott hasn't even had a girlfriend.
The dramatic material in Zero Charisma works, while most of the comedic material pulls its punches a little. Scott is the prototypical nerd, in that he lives with his grandma Wanda (Anne Gee Byrd), a sharp-witted woman who is mostly tolerant of Scott's ways but doesn't sugar-coat her disappointment in where his life is headed. Although his irritability and obsessiveness are amped up to 11, Scott is a pretty honest portrait of social insecurity, which is commendable. It's also commendable that "he lives with his grandma!" and "he paints miniatures!" are not the entirety of the joke, as with the nightmarishly popular, dreadfully unfunny TV show "The Big Bang Theory". At the same time, the humor is generally pretty weak. In one scene, Scott argues at length that he's responsible for The Matrix, which instead of being awkwardly funny, practically makes him seem like a cartoon character rather than a human being. Self-awareness may be the nerd's worst enemy, but the hoops of denial Scott jumps through are a bit of a stretch.
Between the story and Scott, there's some solid groundwork here (Eidson's performance is pretty much perfect), but writer Andrew Matthews (who co-directed along with Katie Graham) limits the film's effectiveness by picking some of the easy routes. For one, Scott lives with his grandmother because his mother, Barbara (Cyndi Williams) is a huge flake. When Wanda has a stroke, Barbara insists on visiting, and spends most of her visit tormenting Scott in one way or another. A poor parent isn't a scapegoat for all of Scott's problems, but it does contribute to the chip on his shoulder in a way that lets him off the hook, not to mention she embarrasses him in legitimately cruel ways. Later, as the film builds to its climax, the movie doubles up when Scott has a bad experience at the game shop, and then drives to Miles' house to confront him. Without getting too specific, both the character he meets at the game shop (Dakin Matthews) and Miles are less complex than they might've been if they were written with different attitudes, but expressed the same truths, taking some of the edge off the film's message.
In all fairness, Zero Charisma is an enjoyable experience: in addition to Eidson, the whole cast is very good, and at no point is the film condescending or comes off as if it's constantly winking at the viewer with "geek cred" (two of the qualities I feared the most going in, and fear from anything about nerds). Still, for as well as Matthews and Graham appear to understand Scott and people like Scott, they also want their film to speak to people like Scott, a complex juggling act they can't quite pull off. The more complex Scott's problems become, the higher the filmmakers climb onto their tiptoes to avoid really criticizing him. Not that Zero Charisma needs to be cruel, but it paints such a specific portrait of such a specific person that its eventual retreat to a pat ending and an easy joke give off the air of a missed opportunity.
Zero Charisma's theatrical poster art, depicting Scott atop a gigantic 20-sided die, brandishing his sword in the air, is re-used for this DVD cover. Pretty decent, although this movie is just asking for Boris Vallejo parody imagery. The single-disc release comes in a standard, eco-friendly Amaray case with a Tribeca leaflet inside the case, and it's covered in a matte cardboard slip featuring the same artwork.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, the image here is generally okay, but it feels strangely muted. Perhaps the lack of "pop" in the colors is an intentional decision, but the image looks a touch washed out throughout the film. Banding is also a significant problem, and even brings some color distortion along with it (ugly yellow-green bands pop up during dark scenes). Details are a little soft, but that can more confidently be attributed to the type of digital photography used here.
Audio is available as both a Dolby Digital 5.1 and a Dolby Digital 2.0 track, which seems like an unnecessary range of options for a film that's never exactly an aural powerhouse. The 5.1 has no problem handling the film's two crowd scenes, the minimal music, and lots and lots of dialogue, generally indoors. Disappointingly, however, no subtitles are included.
Only one extra: A reel of 3 deleted scenes (5:20), which cover an additional injustice in Scott's past, as well as pretty funny fantasy scene and a later reprisal.
Trailers for Somebody Up There Likes Me, The Comedy, and Resolution play before the main menu. No trailer for Zero Charisma is included.
A quote on the DVD cover refers to the movie as "the best film ever made about nerds." It's certainly the most complex, in terms of its nuanced portrait of what nerds are really like. However, the filmmakers handle that portrait with kid gloves, taking the impact away from what the movie is trying to say about that person. Rent it.
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