One of the three executive producers behind the 2013 indie Zero Charisma is Chris Hardwick, host of the Nerdist podcast. I once heard a critic say of Hardwick that his geek-centric material is reductive; he uses the word “nerd” as though he’s speaking about a separate racial or ethnic group. If that were true, then the archetype (or, perhaps, stereotype) to represent Hardwick’s idea of Nerd-American is the lead character of Zero Charisma, whom we were introduced to at Movie Club this week.
Scott (Sam Eidson) has been the game master of his local Dungeons & Dragons game for three years. Overweight, nasal, virginal, and seemingly incapable of being kind to anyone around him, Scott doesn’t seem like much fun to be around. But his friends don’t even begin to realize this until Miles (Garrett Graham), a younger hipster D&D player, joins the game. Since Scott lives for his game, Miles’ presence soon undermines his entire life.
Scott is a cringe-worthy character, and since he’s in 99 percent of the movie’s shots, Zero Charisma is a festival of cringing. As I said after this film, I’ve never cringed so often or so emphatically during any movie that I’ve ever seen. Most of the cringing is intentional, a comedy of awkwardness on a par with The Office or the large part of Sasha Baron Cohen’s career, and it works that way. The scene with Scott’s mother trying to break up his game is an example, as she reveals details from his childhood that are funny, yet painfully humiliating. But there are also a number of scenes, such as the zit-popping moment, in which the amount of awkwardness is far too painful for the size of the laugh received. In those moments, it feels like anyone who is laughing is simply mocking Scott’s pain.
Even in the moments of “bad” cringing, writer Andrew Matthews deserve credit for making Scott a fully realized character. Scott isn’t simply uncomfortable with women; he has problems with his mother that clearly contribute. Scott doesn’t claim that he wrote The Matrix because it’s funny, or because it’s part of the stereotype; he does it because he’s thoroughly unwilling to put any responsibility for his life upon himself. And most important of all, when the plot puts a fine opportunity in front of Scott to make a change, it doesn’t work out as easily as it could do, because self-sabotage is deeply embedded in his entire life.
My biggest problems with this film were not with Scott; they were with Miles. From the start, Miles seems to be presented as a “fake” nerd, and without spoiling anything, some events at the film’s climax seem to confirm that.* But “nerd” is not a race, ethnicity, or any other binary classification, where you either belong to it or you don’t. There are degrees of nerdery: it’s perfectly okay to be as hard-core into D&D as Scott or as casual about the game as Miles, and still be a nerd in either case. In fact, in the Internet era, you can be a nerd about anything: football, or pro wrestling, or figure skating, or sci-fi and fantasy. Scott’s brief interactions with his stepfather suggest an increasingly inaccurate stereotype, where football people and nerds don’t mix and never will.
It’s not that Scott is a nerd stereotype; even if he were, anyone who has ever played D&D has met a Scott or two (including your reviewer). The issue is that the movie doesn’t allow enough room in its worldview for people like Miles and his girlfriend to be nerds. Scott’s pathology isn’t about role-playing games, or collecting and painting miniatures, or any of the other things that he does for fun. The problem is that his ego is too big to allow other people to have fun. Zero Charisma is a hilarious and charming movie when it keeps that fact in mind, but it falls flat when it tries to cast a net over wider issues.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Worse, Miles’ girlfriend carries some characteristics of the “Fake Geek Girl,” a risible stereotype, perpetuated by terrible people, that needs to be killed with fire.