Film Review: The Institute

First-time filmmaker Spencer McCall's documentary about the ultimate role-playing game&#8212;a sort of real-life version of the torturous series of challenges Michael Douglas was forced to navigate in David Fincher's 1997 <i>The Game</i>&#8212;is simul

The Museum of Jurassic Technology. Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America. The HP Lovecraft Historical Society. The Society for Creative Anachronism. The Fortean Times. The Baker Street Irregulars. If any or all of these names ring a bell, you've probably already heard of San Francisco's Jejune Institute, its mysterious founder, Octavio Coleman Esq., and the nefarious Elsewhere Public Works Agency, none of which exists except at the intersection of Oakland-based artist Jeff Hull's narrative imagination and the eager suspension of disbelief of thousands of bright-eyed young people who, between 2008 to 2011, signed up to participate in an elaborate, artsy adventure game requiring them to participate in a series of "missions" that involved solving clues, finding hidden objects and doing silly things in public, all of which have something to do with a missing girl named Eva.
Dungeons and Dragons-level dorkiness or snarky exercise in awareness-heightening through structured defamiliarization of the mundane? Well, Hull did build his house of hipster cards around the Jejune Institute, which screams dork. But the sheer scale and elaborate intricacy of the project argue for loftier intent…that's how the earnest post-movie discussions will start and all to the good, given that the food for thought offered by many American movies would starve a gnat.
And McCall's connection to the project is deeply personal; he was hired in 2011 to shoot faux videos for the Jejune Institute, and his employment came with access to Hull's extensive archives. As McCall became increasingly fascinated by the evolution of the game/happening/site-specific performance piece's evolution, he began interviewing former players, whose experiences seem to have fallen into two camps: Some found it a kicky, invigorating mind-bender, while others discovered that the game's wheels-within-wheels conspiracy hijinks activated a deep vein of paranoia they might have preferred to leave untapped.
All of which is genuinely interesting, even if you find incomprehensible the idea of devoting significant portions of your waking time and energy to what is, more than anything, an elaborate scavenger hunt served up with a dash of charades and a hint of flash-mobbing. But McCall's film is undermined by his problematic decision to coerce viewers into a two-dimensional version of the game experience, doling out information in dribs and drabs in an effort to recreate the real-life players' gradual discovery of a vast alternate reality lurking beneath the surface of everyday life. It's one thing to be interested in the psychology and practical implementation of this elaborate waltz of silliness, and another to be coerced into unwilling compliance with its conceal/reveal structure. And in the end, many viewers will come away shaking their heads and wondering whether perhaps the players just need a hobby, like writing poetry in Klingon, which though equally, well, jejune, would at least be driven by individual desire and discipline rather than orchestrated by a modern-day Miss Sherri.