Live action role playing (LARPing) may be a cultural phenomenon among geeks looking to live out the fantasies they read, watch and play, but the rest of the world look at it not unlike Paul Rudd at the beginning of “Role Models” – namely, as a sophomoric distraction designed to prolong adolescence.
Joe Lynch’s “Knights of Badassdom” does little to further its cause, but that may be because the producers took the film away from him, editing it down to a one-note joke and a whiff of a story that fails to offer a single reason – literal or metaphorical – why dressing up as a fictional character is enjoyable or rewarding.
Ryan Kwanten (HBO’s “True Blood”) plays Joe, a mechanic and sometime doom-metal musician whose girlfriend Beth (Margarita Levieva, TV’s “Revenge”) dumps him for not doing more with his Communications Studies degree. Retreating to the literal castle he lives in with his LARP-obsessed buddies Eric (Steve Zahn) and Hung (Peter Dinklage), Joe reluctantly agrees to join them for a weekend getaway where they don costumes and square off against other geeks under the watchful eye of game master Ronnie (Jimmi Simpson).
But after Ronnie demands that his teammates “bring Joe back to life” with a conjuring spell, Eric accidentally resuscitates a bona fide demon. Teaming up with a handful of misfits including Lando (Danny Pudi), Gunther (Tom Hopper) and Gunther’s comely cousin Gwen (Summer Glau), Joe soon finds himself facing off the otherworldly beast, which to complicate things further has disguised itself as Beth, his ex.
There are lots of great angles to approach LARPing from, particularly for audiences who are perhaps less sympathetic to twenty- and thirtysomething neckbeards who pepper their conversations with Anglo-Saxon language. It could be empowering where people feel victimized in reality. Formal and poetic where real life is casual and crude. A unique form of performance art. Or even just a desperate form of escapism from the routine of blue-collar responsibility.
“Badassdom” takes none of these, instead reducing the entirety of LARPing to one repetitive joke – self-serious old English, immediately undercut by anachronistic slang or some modern reference. Moreover, the movie barely even bothers to address the problems Joe’s confronted with at the beginning of the film – his heartbreaking split and his general irresponsibility – instead halfheartedly trying to assemble all of the best gags from a talented ensemble while maintaining the pretense of a story about a real demon and the phony magicians and warriors who must stop it.
Particularly once the games begin, Kwanten feels like the “hero” only because he’s the most conventionally handsome, even though he’s by far the least interesting character. He’s got a remarkably naturalistic presence on screen, but his lack of magnetism isn’t his fault – it’s the script’s, which offers Joe no emotional substance, and nothing interesting to do. That the movie seems as content as Joe is for him to work as a mechanic and dream of a rock & roll career undermines Kwanten’s ability to make us care.
Meanwhile, the rest of the movie’s ideas feel like desperate homages/ ripoffs that someone got afraid of, legally speaking, at the last minute, such as an opening credits sequence designed to look this close to the prologue of “Evil Dead 2.”
All of which begs the question: What this movie was meant to be in the first place, even under Lynch’s auspices – a midnight movie? A tongue-in-cheek celebration of geek culture? Or something honest and genuinely affecting?
As the latter, and in this form, “Knights of Badassdom” is a complete failure. But quite frankly, for the producers to miss the target of either of the other two quite so broadly is shameful. Because when “Role Models” offers a more flattering portrait of LARPing – which it is literally always making fun of – it exposes this movie that’s actually about LARPing for what it is: a sophomoric distraction designed to prolong careers.