Editor’s Note: This review first came out during our SXSW coverage, but Zero Charisma is now available on DVD.
Scott Weidemeyer (Sam Eidson) is passionate. Really passionate. Probably too passionate. He lords over a weekly table top fantasy game with a few friends, and it’s the only time in his donut-delivering, squatting-in-grandma’s-house, adult boy life where he has any real power. The problem is the passion — he’s become a bully, and the game has evolved into something tedious and bitter.
The signs that the camel’s back is only waiting for a straw come as soon as Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews’ Zero Charisma gets going, so it’s no surprise that when a hipster gamer named Miles (Garrett Graham) joins the crew, the loss of his spotlight drives Scott further and further into desperation.
Those who have seen Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse will see some of the same irritating DNA here. Almost everything is Office-level awkward. Scott is an insufferable character who gets away with being interesting purely because of how sorry you feel for him and because of Eidson’s sheer force of will. Without him, the entire movie would have been torture, but with his (ironically) charismatic performance, it’s transformed into prickly fun.
At the heart of it all is an exploration of what happens when the powder keg of arrested development gets shot with a dozen flaming arrows all at once — every scene is designed to uproot Scott from his already crappy yet comfortable existence. He’s a character who is abjectly terrified of change but has the barrel pointed right at his gut. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know how to dodge a bullet. Or to interact with people without being a giant jackass.
So a lot of the cringing humor comes from Scott trying to be liked, believing he deserves to be liked and then exploding when people respond to how much of an unlikable loser he is. The best example might come from when new gamer Miles reveals that he runs a wildly popular geek culture website, and amid the oohs and aahs, Scott interjects that he basically does the same thing with his 14-visitor-per-month blog. The air turns blue, and his friends have to walk on eggshells explaining the obvious to a delusional guy who’s defensive at the slightest provocation. He wants so badly to be successful, but he’s lazy and can’t understand why the one thing he works hard at isn’t even appreciated by his tiny group of abused playmates.
Directors Graham and Matthews are fearless in mining those moments for laughter and squirm-induced spasms. The best element of the movie is their patience in allowing for a socially embarrassing sequence to hang stiffly in the air, forcing us to stare it down even if a lack of resolution is maddening. Zero Charisma is proof that movies should come with a button that slaps the main character across the face whenever you press it.
Of course the film is low budget, and it shows. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the camera work — which does its duty by getting people in the frame and calling it a day — and there’s the standard empty feeling that comes with homegrown sets. The production’s lack of funds is on the screen, and it hurts the momentum of the film by hollowing it out a bit too much. It thrives on its dialogue and character interactions, but the amateur nature of the technical side draws away from its potential.
But beyond that and a subplot with a bizarrely characterized mother, Zero Charisma succeeds in delivering a raw look at an unappreciated idiot who would be king.
The Upside: Awkward humor that creates a physical response, a great lead in Sam Eidson, a clever commentary on fake geek culture that doesn’t demonize the tourists
The Downside: No flair on the technical side, a too-exposed low budget, and a few characters (namely Scott’s mother) who seem like cartoon plot devices instead of people
On the Side: In the interest of full disclosure (and trivia), I had no idea he was in it, so when my friend John Gholson popped up 30 minutes in playing the manager of a gaming store, it was a pleasant surprise.