I’m not a big fan of what passes for “nerd comedy” when it comes to film and television. Part of my aversion for it lies undoubtedly in being self-conscious about the fact that all too often the arrow hits a little closer to home than I’d like to admit when geeks are portrayed on the screen. However, this is not the sole reason for my distaste. When it comes to comedy, I prefer my humor to have a certain craftsmanship, to take the more difficult road rather than go for the easy laugh. This is seldom the case when nerds, geeks, and gamers show up in a comedic film or TV show. Lazy writers slap some Spock or elf ears on a cardboard character, make him or her socially paralyzed when it comes to human interaction, and expect hilarity to ensue. This is even the case when the people being mocked are the very same audience being targeted. The Big Bang Theory, I’m looking at you.
On the other hand, geek comedy can go too far with their reliance on obscure subject matter, making them completely inaccessible to someone who’s never rolled a d20 or can't tell the difference between a Dalek, a Klingon, and a Wookiee. Anyone who has ever watched something like The Gamers with their non-nerdy, but entirely tolerant other half knows exactly what I’m talking about.
However, every so often you come across a film or TV comedy that manages to walk the fine line between both of these extremes. Last night, I was pleasantly surprised to find one of these rare creatures in the 2007 Icelandic film, Astropia.
Astropia, released in the US as Dorks & Damsels (because apparently no American-born geek would ever see a movie like this unless it mocked them and the hobby they enjoy), is the tale of the beautiful and privileged Hildur who, when her rich and exceedingly blonde boyfriend is sent to prison for tax evasion and embezzlement, must get a job to make ends meet. Desperation forces her to accept a job at Atropia, the neighborhood comic, sci-fi, and games store, where she is immediately immersed into a world she has no understanding of—she’s put in charge of the role-playing games section. Although originally hired to increase business, it’s not too long before Hildur finds a place in this alien world.
While not completely free of the various stereotypes one might predict with such a premise, it’s kinder than most, and Hildur’s co-workers are portrayed with greater depth than could be expected in a similar, lazier production. Gamers and comic buffs will enjoy the name-dropping that occurs in the store (Mark Millar, Grant Morrison, and Monte Cook all get mentioned), and it takes a familiarity with the hobby to fully comprehend Hildur’s faux pas of trying to sell a copy of The World of Darkness to a customer looking for The Book of Vile Darkness.
Unlike The Gamers and other films marketed solely to the niche audience, Astropia is not all geek humor. Hildur’s relationship with her standoffish nephew gives the film some pathos, while her boyfriend’s attempts to acclimate to prison life (Note to self: Although cigarettes may be prison currency, the Icelandic equivalent of Virginia Slims have limited value in lock-up) and his ultimate Shawshank Redemption-inspired attempt to escape provide laughs that cross audience boundaries. The film’s final climax where the lines between fantasy and reality blur is satisfying enough and mixes a Leroy Jenkins joke with the dangers of second-hand smoke.
While not a comedic masterpiece destined to survive the ages, Astropia is a pleasant enough diversion, one that can be shared by gaming geeks and their straight-laced friends and family with equal enjoyment. Most satisfying of all, from a gamer perspective, is that the role-playing group Hildur joins, while not completely free of cheap shots, is closer to the reality than most other depictions I’ve seen. There’s not a pair of elf-ears in sight…at least until the DM starts the adventure, anyway.