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A review of "Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie" (2014)

In case you're reading this without knowing who or what the Angry Video Game Nerd is, let me give you a quick primer.  AVGN is a character created by James Rolfe who dresses like a geek, drinks Rolling Rock beer, and complains about video games.  His shtick boils down into four basic components:

1) Screaming, swearing, gesticulating wildly, and coming up with the most profane hyperbole he can think of.

2) Feces. Typically it's figurative via Point 1 above, but sometimes it's tragically literal.

3) Deconstruction of bad video game mechanics paired with contextual insight into the history of the game, its production, and/or its console.

4) Filmmaking flair and/or cinematic references.

You might notice that two of these are not like the other two.

AVGN reviews are a guilty pleasure.  When Rolfe is on point, his videos are supremely watchable, insightful, and funny.  He's a cinephile at heart, which becomes clear when you branch away from his AVGN persona and check out all the other videos he's made.  That love of film translated into a love of filmmaking which is evident in every video he uploads.  Rolfe never half-asses a production.

Unfortunately, that passion doesn't always extend to his writing.  AVGN is marred by appeal to the lowest common denominator - his diatribes, his exaggerations, his gross-out jokes.  Occasionally it's funny, like a well-timed "FUCK!" when a game pulls some nonsense.  But for the most part, these jokes aren't any more clever than a sixth grader who just learned how to swear and Rolfe doesn't have the charisma to pull them off.

But some people like that stuff. That seems to be why his videos have become as popular as they are.

Thus the grim irony of James Rolfe.  A guy who's actually really good at making movies always has to compromise to sustain regular viewers.  If you ask him to make something compelling, he will - but in order for him to make any money off it, he'll have to have his main character talk about eating elephant farts out of a rotting whale corpse while animated diarrhea sprays out of his ear-holes.  (Y'see that, Internet?  Gross-out hyperbole is easy.  Chill out already.)

I like James Rolfe.  I like what he can do with a small crew and no budget.  I like his energy and I like that he keeps trying.  And I've always wondered what he would do if he could live out his dream and direct a feature length movie.  But can he elevate his material and be a proper filmmaker?

Well... maybe next time.  AVGN: The Movie is a collection of his worst habits writ large, and that makes the character even weirder and more obnoxious than even the worst episodes of the show.

In order to scale up from a seven minute short to a two hour (!) feature, he created an over-the-top mythology tangentially related to a bad video game so there would be a reason for the Nerd to embark on an epic adventure.  The game in question is E.T. for the Atari 2600, stylized in the movie as Eee Tee, ostensibly to avoid any copyright issues.

A video game company (named "Cockburn," and yes, that is the whole joke) is about to unveil an intentionally terrible sequel to Eee Tee with the hopes of appealing to young people's sense of irony.  A Cockburn executive, Mandi, sets out to goad the Nerd into reviewing their game in order to spread word of mouth and tap into that sweet, sweet hipster money.

Unfortunately, the Nerd infamously refuses to review Eee Tee. Fearing that a review of Eee Tee 2 will only further encourage his fans to demand a review of the original game, he refuses Mandi's offer.  And then, through arbitrary logic and plot magic, he goes on a road trip to Nevada to look for the landfill where millions of unsold copies of Eee Tee were supposedly buried.  This, in turn, gets him wrapped up in a conspiracy involving Area 51, alien technology, and a Lovecraftian elder god who sleeps under Mt. Fuji.

A narrative like this means you have to lose the deconstructive / documentarian approach of a review, so I can't justifiably complain that it's missing those aspects of what I like about the series.  Unfortunately, without those pieces, you're left with only the story... and that's a problem.

You can start with the Nerd himself.  He isn't much of a character to begin with - literally everything you need to know about him is in his name - but the movie manages to turn him into even less than that.  In his reviews he's agitated by poor coding or unfair game design.  In the movie, he's just some pissy asshole.

What's his motivation behind refusing to review Eee Tee?  In the series, he just doesn't want to play it, and that makes sense in a vacuum.  In the movie, where it's established that he's putting his reviews online and he's a real person with fans and a following and everybody really wants him to review the game, his refusal is off-putting and unlikeable.

(At one point, his sidekick pulls him aside and asks, "What do you honestly think of the game?" And the Nerd answers, "I hate it, plus here's some swearing."  That counts as a review, guy.  Just put that on your website and move on if you're tired of people haranguing you.)

The plot is bloated and becomes more spastic and confused as it goes on.  At least three villains are introduced, with only the most tenuous of threads connecting them to each other.  By the time the Nerd starts resolving the conflict(s), it's not even clear why he's still invested, let alone what talents or circumstances would make him the protagonist.


But as much as I'm complaining, the fact remains that Rolfe is a compelling director.  Considering its budget, the movie looks fantastic.  Rolfe makes copious use of green screen effects and miniatures that have that wonderful B movie feel where they're obviously fake, but not lazily so.  It's edited terrifically and truly does feel like a cinematic take on the AVGN series, and that's exactly what it set out to be.  Mission accomplished, Rolfe.

Plus, the music is kinda nifty, too.

There are glimmers and highlights to enjoy in the film.  Some jokes land, some line readings are great, some bit players are excellent.  By the time it's over, you get the feeling that there was a huge missed opportunity here, and it makes me wish somebody could go back in time and help Rolfe out with his screenplay.

Consider this: the initial premise is actually brilliant groundwork for a great comedy.  A major company wants to intentionally make a shitty game to appeal to disaffected young people?  That's funny.  Why not use that to deconstruct the entire AVGN phenomenon?  You do that by having the company hire him as a consultant in order to make the game as shitty as possible instead of having him review the game.

From there, you can go in tons of directions that would keep the story more grounded and give better context for the character to work.  If you want to go the lowbrow route, keep him in character the whole time.  If you want to go highbrow, make a fictionalized version of James Rolfe who's feeling conflicted about the game and his job as a game reviewer.  You could turn it into a clever meta commentary on the nature of irony and the many layers of sarcasm you have to dig through on the Internet.  Either way, you have plenty of room to joke about the bullshit nature of video game criticism.

I respect an artist who gives the fans what they want, so I understand why Rolfe went the way he did.  He was probably worried about alienating his viewers.  But I also think a good artist will take fans to new and interesting places.  Rolfe has proved that he's capable of something much smarter than this.  Next time, I hope he goes for it.

My Rating: 2 / 5

Where You Can Watch

AVGN: The Movie is available virtually anywhere you can stream movies, and if you're a fan of James Rolfe, you'd do well to pay for it regardless of what you're expecting.  But if you're a cheapskate like me and you have Prime, you can stream it on for (basically) free.

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