Remember that eerie feeling you had while watching the documentary "Spellbound," a rather mesmerizing film about a group of kids competing in the National Spelling Bee?
"Spellbound" was simultaneously hypnotic and creepy. It was impossible to deny that we were watching remarkably intelligent kids, but throughout the film I kept having this creepy feeling that at least one of these children would grow up to be our next infamous serial killer.
Now, we have "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters," a documentary from director Seth Gordon following the fierce rivalry between two seemingly grown men competing for the world record in "Donkey Kong," a video game which saw its relevance dissipate even among gamers at least 20 years ago.
Much like the unbiased creepiness of yet another recent documentary, "Jesus Camp," one can't help but simultaneously chuckle and be mortified that two grown men, both successful in their own right, can so completely and obsessively with conquering Donkey Kong.
There's Billy Mitchell, a successful Florida businessman who found his fortune in hot sauce and who carries himself like the Marilyn Manson of Donkey Kong.
I wish I were kidding.
Mitchell has the bad guy persona down pat, but the man has been the nearly unquestioned master at Donkey Kong for years.
Of course, it's partially unquestioned because only a few actually seem to care...but, I digress.
When Mitchell is challenged by Steve Wiebe, a high school science teacher, the men become bitter rivals in what is essentially a two-man war for Donkey Kong supremacy.
It's tempting, mighty tempting, to trash "King of Kong" as an irrelevant piece of documentarian fluff. However, much like the recent "Wordplay," based upon the wildly popular Will Shortz and his crossword puzzles, "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters" is, much to my surprise, an entertaining and frequently funny film that laughs along with this scenario without ever really becoming an exercise in humiliation or degradation.
Gordon, while occasionally manipulating the storyline for dramatic effect, seems to know that he doesn't really have to do much to make this film interesting and the two lead characters themselves are so completely authentic that it's impossible not to be completely engrossed even as your jaw completely drops at the action before your eyes.
The pure goofiness of "The King of Kong" is matched only by the film's two leads and their completely honest sense of machismo that seems to arise solely out of their proclamation of Donkey Kong world supremacy.
While one can undoubtedly argue that a certain amount of emotional manipulation is taking place onscreen here, it's a credit to Gordon as director that he allows the full spectrum of emotions to come alive onscreen here. "The King of Kong" is surprisingly touching, awfully funny, occasionally sad, emotionally charged and, yes, I'd dare say the film even contains a few vital life lessons about the inherent human need to find something in which we excel.
Mitchell and Wiebe, for all their quirks and eccentricities, are so fully developed here that, love em' or hate em', it's unlikely you'll be able to ignore them.
If you've found yourself involved in the recent spate of human interest documentaries such as "Wordplay," "Spellbound" or "Jesus Camp," then odds are you will find "The King of Kong" a rewarding, entertaining and occasionally moving cinema experience.
While "The King of Kong" doesn't really warrant the raves some critics have been splashing upon it, it does warrant a successful run on the arthouse circuit and the attention of audiences craving something unique from their moviegoing experience.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic