Film Review: Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story

More than you ever thought you could know about the world's favorite board game is here in this amiable but wandering, factoid-filled documentary.

Monopoly, the ultimate, enduring board game devoted to ruthlesssly acquiring real estate, is given a thorough investigation in Kevin Tostado's breezy documentary Under the Boardwalk, which goes into its history and global reach.

In the early 1900s, Elizabeth Magie, an Illinois Quaker, came up with an early prototype, The Landlord's Game, which ironically was meant to be anti-capitalist. Although she never was able to secure a major manufacturing contract, the game was popular enough to inspire enthusiasts to make their own copies of it. A Philadelphia man, Charles Darrow, altered it into its more familiar form, making it more of a celebration of money-grubbing, and his self-published version was eventually bought by Parker Brothers, the royalties of which continue to enrich the Darrow family coffers. The game's appeal peaked during the Depression, fulfilling the get-rich-quick fantasies of the American populace, and it killed internationally as well, with localized versions of it being sold today in more than 100 countries.

Tostado focuses on the 2009 World Monopoly Championship held in Vegas, of course, the ultimate geek-fest attracting gamers from all over the world. We meet controversial characters like know-it-all veteran player Ken Koury, who accuses a couple of gamers of cheating, and Tim Vandenberg, a likeable sixth-grade teacher who uses the game to instruct his students in math. The players, who include an unsurprising number of type-A lawyers, verbally extol the game, but there's no denying that seeing Monopoly played is akin to watching paint dry. (But then, there are people who are riveted by “Poker After Dark.”) It is undeniably enjoyable, however, to watch blowhard Koury eventually go down. Tostado's lingering over the tournaments somewhat drains interest, but he intercuts more absorbing tidbits about the game throughout.

We learn that Communist countries have long banned the game, which actually aided Allied soldiers in escaping from POW camps in World War II. (The British Secret Service commissioned the company John Waddington, Ltd., which was also the licensed foreign manufacturer of Monopoly,  to produce escape maps printed on silk which were then hidden in the boxes containing the games, which were distributed in care packages for prisoners.) Tostado also exhaustively includes clips from the myriad film and TV shows which have referenced Monopoly, from 1936's Meet Nero Wolfe through “The Flintstones” and “30 Rock.” The game itself is highly collectible and we meet an assortment of nerds who troll eBay and the like in search of rare versions of it, with the early handmade ones being particularly desirable. There's an interesting segment about the iconic tokens used in the game and what a player's choice of said token, like the top hat, says about him. I, personally, was never able to finish a game, and am told here by pundits in no uncertain terms that that is because I didn't play it properly. Who knew?