"The King of Kong;" "2 Days in Paris"

Dennis Harvey; Kristi Mitsuda August 21, 2007

“The King of Kong,” a masterpiece of train-wreck voyeurism.

The appeal of reality TV shows is simple: The vast majority of people enjoy watching others fail, throw tantrums, look idiotic, get humiliated, and otherwise publicly suffer the emotional equivalent of a pratfall. Oh, sure, folks fret who will win “American Idol” or whatever, but the triumph of the champions isn’t what keep them coming back. No, it’s the spectacle of the ridiculous non-talent caterwauling their heart out, the devious or spoiled-brat teammate who ruins life for everyone else on “Survivor,” and so forth. If these programs exclusively cast nice, self-sacrificing, fair-minded folk, the genre would never have taken off-and who knows how many brain cells would have been spared fryout worldwide?

Occasionally a serious feature documentary comes along that has the same appeal at base. Perhaps the classic example is the Maysles’ 1975 “Grey Gardens,” in which two crackpot relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis were revealed shambling around their decrepit mansion, grotesquely eccentric. More recently there was another masterpiece of train-wreck voyeurism in 2003’s “Overnight.” Its filmmakers had extraordinary access to trace the fast rise and faster flameout of Troy Duffy, who was designated the Next Big Thing by Miramax, indulged to the max, made one derivative Tarantino-esque flick (“Boondock Saints”), and pretty much pissed away all his good fortune by being a monumental jerk.

Now we’ve got Seth Gordon’s terrific debut feature “The King of Kong, a highly entertaining documentary about strife that might strike many as even sillier than an episode of “America’s Next Top Model”: The tempest over just who is the world champion of Donkey Kong, that fiendishly difficult video arcade game.

Long-established as that dude is so-called “Gamer of the Century” Billy Mitchell, a Florida hot-sauce mogul who in the early ’80s (when he looked like a participant in “Heavy Metal Parking Lot”) seized a number of gaming titles. A quarter-century later he’s surrendered all of them save the Donkey Kong one. Which, as we glean from “King,” he might only allow to be pried from his cold, dead hands.

Mitchell looks like a ’70s rock star (the uncool-but-thinks-he’s-so-cool kind that would have been in, say, Poco or Foreigner) and has an ego that won’t quit, though you sure wish it would. Asked “How are you?” on a TV talk show, he quips “I’m perfect! Haven’t you read?” Elsewhere, he says “No matter what I say, it draws controversy. It’s sort of like the abortion issue.” His wife looks like she has implants. He couldn’t possibly seem more the D-I-C-K.

Needless to say, his cock-of-the-walk image is threatened when Washington State grade school teacher, husband, and father of two Steve Wiebe submits video evidence that he’s beaten Mitchell’s record Kong score on his own garage console. A hand-eye-coordination genius of sorts, Wiebe is otherwise a terribly nice Average Joe who dreams of being acknowledged as exceptionally at something…anything.

The “rivalry” that ensues fascinates, largely due to the personalities involved. Mitchell won’t surrender his title without a fight — even a seemingly dirty, duplicitous one. Not helping matters is that the gaming officials in charge of such records appear to be his cronies, He’s also got a mini-army of dweeb sycophants to discourage fair-fighter Wiebe’s efforts when the latter turns up for live competitions, which Mitchell steadfastly refuses to do.

I won’t play spoiler here. Suffice it to say “The King of Kong” offers a whole lotta juicy real-world melodrama, with plentiful character interest both to root for and throw tomatoes at.

Who freakin’ cares who’s the king of Donkey Kong? Numerous people do — and by the end of this absorbing film, you will too.

Director Seth Gordon appears in person following the 7:15pm and 9:45pm shows at the Lumiere Theatre on Fri/24.

Sunset Stripped: Julie Delpy’s “2 Days in Paris”

[SF360.org editor’s note: This story originally appeared in indieWIRE on Aug. 6; the film opens in the Bay Area this Friday.]

Paired with another scruffy American in Paris, Julie Delpy actively engages viewer recollections of “Before Sunset” in her DIY feature-length directorial debut. Playing like a rough-around-the edges reinterpretation of Richard Linklater’s transcendent “Before Sunrise” sequel, “2 Days in Paris” echoes “Sunset” in so many ways it’s nearly impossible to meet on its own terms (at least for one as admittedly infatuated with its predecessor as I am). Much of the film’s meaning seems generated by comparisons. His name this time is Jack (Adam Goldberg) rather than Jesse but, as Marion quibbles with her beau along the Seine — full of resting riverboats — we can’t help but think back to Celine and Jesse’s tremulous ride. Delpy’s character in “2 Days” also distractingly resembles the other in intellectual curiosity, strident political concerns, and unabashed love for her cat (named Jean-Luc, though we still remember Che). Is she intentionally playing off these resonances, and to what effect?

Tacking on two days to visit Marion’s family in Paris before returning back home to New York after a vacation in Venice, the couple encounters several of her ex-boyfriends during their brief stay. Each run-in gives Jack cause for concern as he sees, for the first time, evidence of her active love life before him. While his insecurities take hold — exacerbating an already neurotic persona which leaves him prone to migraines and anxious about potential allergens, oncoming colds, terrorists — Marion’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic, spiking during a frenzied argument with a cabbie over some racist comments he makes. Startling Jack and causing the driver to pull over, her actions invert a similar scene in “Sunset” where Celine reaches an emotional crescendo in a backseat confessional. But whereas Celine’s meltdown shows us her vulnerability and brings us closer, Marion’s alienates, reveals her characteristic kookiness as a cover for a deeper kind of craziness (later to be dubbed by Jack an “impulse control disorder”).

The dissonance this creates seems deliberate; a way of stripping away the lush romanticization of Paris and love — between two impossibly captivating human beings — found in Linklater’s film, and countering it with a coarser representation of both the city and the day-to-day in the life of a two-year-old couple flecked with numerous flaws. “2 Days” seeks to inject the unrulier aspects of relationships into the equation, and has some nice qualities — the writing can be witty, and occasionally Delpy’s charmingly off-kilter sensibility shines through — but it’s a mess. Is it an investigation into jealousy, or the fallacies of emotional openness? A cross-cultural romance examining national truisms and misperceptions? An illustration of generalities about how no person can ever truly know another . . . blah, blah, blah. Who knows? Huge gaps in characterization coupled with an inexplicably explicit yet still cryptic concluding voiceover summation leaves us stranded.

Rhythm-less and stunted by strange tics, the movie longs to break out of its loquacious romantic comedy mold to encompass more than its generic lightness can accommodate — an urge which betrays itself with bouts of crass humor and sudden animosity. Other signs: Peppered throughout are political references, including jabs at ugly American tourism (“Da Vinci Code-Breakers” on the way to the Louvre) and Bush administration horrors (see Jack’s fashionably scripted “Visit Guantanamo Bay” T-shirt), as well as French xenophobia and, well, Frenchness (Delpy’s real-life mother and father play earthily snobbish caricatures). The writer-director (and editor and producer . . .) says in the press notes that she had any number of other films in mind to make as her first but couldn’t find financing until, ultimately, settling on a movie in which she would “not be too different from what people are used to seeing me in.” Clearly Delpy’s a wise student of the world with something to say, but “2 Days in Paris” lacks the cohesive vision and imperative one senses she’s after.

[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and works at New York’s Film Forum. Reprinted with permission, copyright Kristi Mitsuda, indieWIRE 2007.)