** (out of four)
Perhaps the molasses-slow, mockumentary-ish “Computer Chess” will connect with a small but rabid community. The critical buzz for writer-director Andrew Bujalski’s (“Beeswax”) latest suggests as much.
Thing is, great films about niche societies—like the spectacular doc “The King of Kong”—open up their worlds to a broader audience. That doesn’t mean pandering; it means translating what makes their subjects special. In his black-and-white, early ’80s-set look at a chess tournament and a group of men experiencing hiccups in their personal and technological progress, Bujalski maintains a detachment that stares blankly rather than observes. He’s long been mentioned in the same sentence as Chicagoan Joe Swanberg, but with every film, the “Drinking Buddies” filmmaker increases the distance between the two.
Arguably boring topics like programming don’t have to yield boring films (cough, “The Social Network”), and “Computer Chess” makes Ashton Kutcher’s recent, uneven “Jobs” look like a classic.
Throughout “Chess,” characters (played by mostly unknown actors, plus Wiley Wiggins of “Dazed and Confused”) use overhead projectors and giant operating systems and strive for various forms of human and/or computer interaction. Many chess moves are made; a few socially awkward guys advance toward the hooker standing outside their hotel. What develops, outside some minor points about people moving about like game pieces and the inability to predict innovation, is something like a Christopher Guest film without a point of view. “Guys like you are from Mars to me,” one less-dweeby dude asks another. “How do you get to be you?”
Bujalski doesn’t exactly demonstrate “Napoleon Dynamite”-esque judgment toward his geeky subculture, but he also possesses minimal curiosity or insight. Oh, very funny, one guy (Myles Paige) doesn’t have a room reserved so he tries to pass time with whomever will let him in. Big deal. Like the body of this filmmaker’s work, “Computer Chess” and its praise prove to be much ado about nothing.
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