Scott Weidemeyer – Game Master extraordinaire, delivery driver for the Donut Taco Palace II, fully ensconced basement dweller of the most supreme vintage – is an asshole. He’s a nerd, yes, in the grandest classical tradition, but instead of misunderstood, cuddly, and even, dare we say, attractive, he’s the most slovenly slab of sumbitch seen in many a cinematic moon. To the credit of writer/director Andrew Matthews – and there’s much credit to be had, given this man’s connection to the supremely watchable documentary Best Worst Movie – Scott hasn’t a redeeming quality to be found anywhere in his sad, man-boob of a flesh cocoon, which means we can be spared the expected third act swing into sentimentality, or last-minute reversal that points to the saint within. No, Scott is an obnoxious, selfish, deluded creep from beginning to end, and if we don’t outright root for his destruction, we can at least rest assured that he won’t learn a damn thing along the way. There’s no aw-shucks sweet pea waiting to spring forth, only a man so fully immersed in his own self-immolation that he’s powerless to do a thing save a final strike of the match. And lord knows, he’s ready. Gladly, with teeth bared.
It is with this character that Mr. Matthews (and co-director Katie Graham) have fashioned Zero Charisma, a film that, at bottom, does for nerd culture what 12 Years a Slave is likely to do for plantation overseers. That nerds have been instrumental in fashioning the enduring myth of their unjust push to society’s margins is beyond dispute, when all along they’ve been the root, branch, and full-on flowering of a particularly insidious incarnation of fascism. Not that there’s an acceptable school of thought regarding jackbooted authoritarianism, but the nerd variety is most dangerous of all because from all appearances, the geeks among us appear to be weak and helpless, wholly incapable of sending hand-picked enemies to camps and gas chambers. Do not be fooled, however, by their rubbery lack of musculature, pasty aversion to the outdoors, or comical, Magoo-like myopia. For what nerds lack regarding the heft to heave their brethren into unending enslavement, they more than make up for in shattering will. Nerd hate, it is understood, is as densely packed an evil as exists in the known universe, and the hyena-inspired cackle dismissed as jovial remains, instead, the roar of a revenge relentlessly sought. They’ll get theirs, and they won’t bother to count the corpses.
So for all the self-described individuality, a man like Scott adheres to type as religiously as a Catholic to historic ritual. The lack of a girlfriend becomes not a condition, but a choice; where he can claim he doesn’t “like to be tied down” without pausing to notice that his lifestyle has done exactly that, albeit to intimacy’s absence, rather than its pleasures. If he’s a directionless buffoon, it’s but a sacrifice for the payoff to come, where a life in grease and grime is “just until I find a publisher.” If he appears to have a Buddha-like devotion to sexual abstention, it’s only because he’s channeled his natural impulses into the decidedly unnatural, up to and including masturbating to anime and Wonder Woman. His libido has become so warped, in fact, that when he leaps upon a friend to pop a zit, it becomes a substitute for foreplay. Once the pimple is vanquished, Scott collapses, as if in post-coital release. He’s gone so far into the great beyond, in fact, that it’s entirely questionable whether we could ever really be attracted to a human female. Unless she’s moonlighting as a vampire, werewolf, or other fantastical creation, she’s likely to be seen as unworthy of his attentions. Like National Socialism and its ubermensch, nerds have so idealized the female form that it becomes a distortion of humanity itself. The more unreal in its conception, the more urgent the desire.
Lacking any real authority that’s worth a damn, Scott exerts his own form of petty tyranny amongst the few sad sacks equally desperate for recognition. As the Game Master for his self-designed Role Playing Game, he not only establishes the rules, he changes them at will, understanding that power is one thing, but power that lasts traffics in the arbitrary. If they get comfortable, they get clever. And while a nerd may desire his own kingdom, his erections are just as mighty in a nation of four. A particular genius of Zero Charisma is to show the RPG universe not as fun and imaginative, but rather, its cold, polar opposite. This is work, not play, and the fantasy world remains as perilous and stressful as the one they so passionately want to escape. After all, they are laboring through situations and encounters that, while decidedly otherworldly, are meant to prove that if a nerd is anything, it’s an unconquerable problem-solver. If a man can trick the Goblin Queen into surrendering her stones of light, who says he can’t rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the mail room? Scott’s such a true believer, in fact, that he’s as similarly opposed to World of Warcraft and other video game pretenders. If RPG’s are, simply put, “communal storytelling,” men like Scott are the last, best hope for a return to our primal roots. Delusions of grandeur recast as heroic virtue.
Scott’s world, then, is supremely satisfying, as are most tombs hermetically sealed against intrusions from without, but as we all know, such bulwarks are particularly vulnerable to ruin. Here, the end begins when Scott meets Miles, a low-key, seemingly harmless fellow gamer who innocently wanders into The Wizard’s Tower looking for a little action. Having just lost a member of his group to marital woes, Scott is intrigued, little suspecting that Miles is the exact opposite of what he needs to sustain his fiefdom. Miles is wispy and slight, but beneath his owlish frames lies the ultimate usurper; a nerd so nerdy he’s gone beyond nerd to emerge as cool. Hip, even. After a single appearance at Scott’s RPG event, it’s clear that far from being the new pawn, Miles is confident, funny, and even a little brash. What’s more, he has a successful website, a well-read blog, and yes, communication with a real publisher, not some fevered pipe dream. Holy hell, he even has a girlfriend (Kendra), one so beyond the pale that she texts Miles mid-game, begging for sex. Scott is no dummy; he perceives the threat in an instant, and he knows he’ll soon lose his following if he doesn’t hammer Miles into an acceptable form. The sort of man who can’t possibly compete with an RPG virtuoso.
In another movie, Scott would find his inner strength, rise to the challenge, and perhaps even see Miles as a fellow traveler in the fantasy life. Here, Scott becomes even more of a prick, and he quickly alienates his few remaining friends, which takes some doing, given their already criminally low standards for socialization. But Miles writes for geekchic.com, and all Scott has done lately is bitch about being the actual creator of The Matrix (his version was called “Nights of Circuitry”). Furthermore, Scott just can’t help himself. He’s a liar, a fool, and certifiably nasty, but he hasn’t had to face genuine competition before. As expected, he turns to his hobby for succor. In addition to the RPG evenings, Scott paints fantasy figurines, which are then plopped on a less-than-grand stage for further reenactments. Here, he can have his payback, albeit in miniature. “Your hubris angers the heavens!” he cries, attaining an articulate retort to counter his actual belligerence. Deep down, though, he knows he must put away the plastic and paint and take up actual arms against his nemesis. What he hopes to gain is beyond even his wildest imaginings, but absent a rational sense of conflict resolution, the most dramatic encounter possible will simply have to do.
Tucked within the Scott/Miles war for the hearts and minds of a few forgettable nerds is Scott’s home life, which would be depressing were it not so wonderfully hateful. Scott lives with his grandma, who is diametrically opposed to most portraits of the aged, in that she’s as foul as her grandson. It’s strikingly clear that Scott is simply waiting for the old sot to drop dead so he can take possession of her home, and when she suffers a stroke, he’s less concerned than pissed at the inconvenience. And when Scott’s estranged mother rolls into town after grandma’s hospitalization, it’s not to heal old wounds, but simply an attempt to trick her into selling early to help pay off her debts. Scott hates his mother with a seething disgust, and her newest beau, well, he’s simply the latest in a long string of boring dopes who don’t ever seem to last. Instead of love and kindness, we get threats, insults, and mutual contempt. Zero Charisma may not break any new ground (still, with a $25,000 budget, it’s remarkably seamless), but it aligns itself with the agreeable philosophy that if we’re going to watch a movie, we want to see people even worse off than we are. If there has to be a family, let it be one where blood will be shed, rather than kisses exchanged. Most movie nerds have mothers and fathers and grandparents alike who, even if they don’t quite relate, know how to dry a tear or wipe away a sniffle. Thankfully, there are still filmmakers who present home and hearth as being least likely to align the stars.
As the film winds down, we begin to sense where it will take us, but there’s an additional axe to grind that we may not have expected. Before that moment, we’re treated to yet another sour apple of a man, this time the cult hero Greg Goran, who is described as the “godfather of table top gaming,” but just might be more notorious for being the biggest jerk in the industry. Sure, his contempt for the fans and humorless impatience are straight from the William Shatner/SNL playbook (“Get a life!”), but if it’s little more than a nod to one of the great star meltdowns of all time, it’s an acceptable resurrection. Who wouldn’t get tired of the same insipid questions year after year, one convention bleeding into the next? Goran’s disgust does, most importantly, set the table for Scott’s final chapter, as he goes completely off the reservation. The time has come, my friends, for the final confrontation. The crimes of Miles can no longer be allowed to stand. There will be a duel, a battle royale, and here’s hoping there’s still something left of the poor bastard to send to the undertaker. And if a crutch must act as a broadsword, so be it. What has been taken, must be given back. These are the rules of the realm. Honor, above all.
Only Miles turns out to be an even bigger asshole. Yes, worse than Scott. For if there remains a bigger threat to life and limb than the aggrieved nerd in search of reparations, it is the hipster in repose; tranquil, detached, and oh-so-above it all. You see, at least the nerd is authentic. Impossible to live with and pathological in his victimization, but a genuine article nonetheless. By contrast, the hipster is play-acting, doing the “nerd thing” either to generate a reaction, or inhabit a skin that can be shed whenever the mood strikes. Affectation as a buffer from full commitment. When Scott arrives at Miles’ party, the air is so thick with smug self-awareness, it’s like falling into a Felliniesque madhouse. Really, an old tyme bicycle tattoo? A freakin’ cat shirt? A low neck sailor getup? Everyone with a beard? Or what of Kendra’s revealing tell (“Nerds are sexy”)? But soft tones and goofy grins bely their real revolution – embracing the discarded not out of some sense of its perceived worth, but rather, because it is discarded. All is a passing fancy; loved because it is hated, then once again hated when it is loved. For Miles, that is what nerd culture will always be, and so on down the line until the cheap seats stop giving a shit. At least nerds can handle isolation; hipsters need the spotlight to even know if they’re on the right track. All is performance, all is art. The whole of humanity reduced to a simple shrug.
Still, while Zero Charisma posits the ultimate horror as hipsterism writ large, Scott and his lot are far from victorious. His ilk will never become pleasant in fact, only by comparison. It’s why we always prefer the overt racist to the smiling bigot who has learned how to cover his tracks. Scott gets his life back, so to speak, and his friends return, but there’s no sunshine beneath these clouds. He’ll get a new job, sure, but one just as shitty as the last, and if he’s not as possessed by the demons of fantasy, just wait until the right moment arrives. The final scene, in fact, is where our worst fears are realized. You can change the furniture, but the nerd remains. And he’s still hating. Still fighting a battle that can never be won. But he’s always himself, where the end is always (and forever) bitter. And if Scott ends up killing himself, or taking out a cafeteria with shotgun, at least it’s a position. An attempt at meaning. Miles, the poor sap, wouldn’t even know where to begin.