“Zero Charisma” (2013)
by A.J. Hakari
Let it be known that Zero Charisma isn’t the sort of film to back away from a challenge. If anything, it doubles down on its gamble to build its story around one of the most unpleasant protagonists in recent cinema. The movie posits the idea that nerds can very much be bullies in their own right, that not even supposed havens of the socially-awkward like the gaming scene are safe from those who’d belittle others to sooth their superiority complex. But Zero Charisma is perhaps a tad overzealous in its desire to examine the darker aspects of a culture that’s so often dismissed as trivial. Its premise is fascinating, but its follow-through is painful to watch, entrenching viewers so deeply in the lead character’s pathetic nature, you end up not wanting fortune to crack so much as a smirk in his direction.
Scott (Sam Eidson) is the culmination of every bad stereotype about geeks you’ve ever heard. He’s thirtysomething, overweight, directionless, and stuck living with a grandmother (Anne Gee Byrd) for whom screaming matches are a common form of communication. Scott’s only solace lies with acting out a tabletop roleplaying game of his own design, but even loosening up to have fun is an impossibility. As game master, Scott holds court over a small group of “friends” who can barely tolerate his presence long enough to slay some imaginary orcs. But our boy’s world is thrown for a loop after one of his fellow players is forced to drop out, leading him to recruit sociable newcomer Miles (Garrett Graham) to take over his slot. Instantly, all the game night guys gravitate towards the more relaxed and outgoing Miles — save for Scott and his barely-concealed jealousy. But this is just the first in a chain of events that proceeds to shake up Scott’s life and force him to confront the reasons why he’s such a pariah in the first place.
The last time the word “nerd” was presented in a serious context, we got that brief string of hilarious cautionary tales about how Dungeons & Dragons was going to turn America’s teens into murder zombies. At the very least, Zero Charisma is commendable for aspiring to explore — with as little sensationalism as possible — the emotionally-damaging consequences of getting too wrapped up in what is, at the end of the day, just a game. That part of making its point involves casting Scott as a loser is of no issue, nor is there a problem with how it argues that the road to redemption can be a tough one to travel. However, the extreme degree to which Scott is depicted as unrepentantly self-important and deluded is absolutely crippling to any sort of headway that Zero Charisma hoped to make. Nearly every word that comes out of Scott’s mouth has been designed to embarrass him, to hammer home how poisonous his behavior is to himself and everyone around him. There’s no rule saying that protagonists have to be likable or that we’re to sympathize with everything they do, but it helps to have some shred of concern for what happens to them. Zero Charisma reaches a point at which it seems to possess genuine hatred for Scott, and as it’s all under the guise of a “comedy,” the audience feels encouraged to laugh at what a sad sack of human garbage he is, rather than gain any real insight as to how he got that way.
That the film elicits more desires to throw peanuts at its main character than feelings of empathy is a shame, because so much of its remainder comes across as surprisingly relatable. The concept of wanting to lose one’s self in a fantasy world to escape a go-nowhere life should be an easy sell to those who’ve never rolled twenty-sided dice in their lives. But it goes without saying that geekily-inclined viewers will find the sweet spots that Zero Charisma aims to poke are considerably more tender with them than others. The flick certainly struck a chord with yours truly, and I’ll admit that not only have I felt like one of the underlings that Scott orders around throughout the years, I’ve been in Scott’s shoes, too. It all comes from fearing persecution for what you enjoy so much, it’s easy to become overly-protective and lose sight of what was fun about it all to begin with. But while I’m sure the filmmakers meant otherwise, Zero Charisma so rarely exhibits this kind of humanity. It stacks the deck against its characters too much, and despite talented performers like Eidson straining to add another dimension or two to their roles, you wonder how this crew could stand each other long enough to stage a single game night, let alone carry it on for years, as we’re told.
It’s not that I’m mad at Zero Charisma for negatively portraying a particular aspect of nerd culture. But while you get the feeling that the flick’s creators had a more complex narrative in mind, their guiding attitude went from “tough but fair” to “punishing” somewhere along the line. I applaud Zero Charisma‘s refusal to sugarcoat its subject, but to sit through the ending credits wondering what purpose everything we just saw served probably isn’t the way the filmmakers expected to leave their viewers.