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Bingo (2005)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 08/27/05 17:52:09

"Stop giggling when they call 'O-69,' please. Thank you."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Given that we have seen documentaries studying spelling bees and Scrabble, why not bingo? Surely there’s some unexamined side to this game that would make terrific movie fodder, right? Sadly, John Jeffcoat, director of “Bingo” (talk about a no-frills title), fails to dig deep enough to make his film anywhere nearly as interesting as “Spellbound” or “Word Wars.”

But then, at a mere fifty-nine minutes, Jeffcoat doesn’t even give himself time to get his movie rolling. And so we only get the basics: a quick rundown regarding the history of the game (evolved from “Beano;” the same guy then went on to create Yahtzee); a quick study of how the game is played and what the terminology is; a quick meeting with a handful of bingo fanatics; a quick peek at the variations; the wilder or more serious versions of the game. The end.

What Jeffcoat has with his footage is the makings of a decent documentary, but he doesn’t mold it properly. As such, we get the same ideas over and over and over again, namely, that bingo gives the elderly something to do. The fact that it can provide the role of much-needed social activity is repeated all too often throughout the hour. But there’s no real detail here; Jeffcoat offers up interview after interview of senior citizen confessing how bingo has filled a void since the kids grew up and the spouse died, yet never truly follows through. Who are these people that get so much camera time? All we really know is that they’re old, they need to socialize, and they love bingo, end of story.

The exception here is an in-depth study of a former drug addict and alcoholic who discovered bingo during his recovery. He now finds the game to be his new addiction, and he was able to get back on his feet by finding a job as janitor of the local bingo hall. His story is an engaging one, full of personal drama and careful introspection. Better still, his seemingly untapped intelligence makes him a delightful tour guide of the bingo world, his observations on the subculture he loves far more involving that anything else the movie has to offer.

Jeffcoat comes close to hitting the mark on a few other occasions. Two extensive interviews, one with a professor who studies bingo and its effects on the aging brain and another with an expert who reveals how bingo can lead to serious gambling addiction, open doors to intriguing discussion, yet the filmmaker never follows through. He merely presents their statements, never bothering to find personal examples to highlight these ideas. (In fact, one professor has to provide examples for him - although we never meet the people she’s discussed.)

And that’s when the director even bothers to deal with ideas at all. Most times, he’s skirting the issue of government- and church-sanctioned gambling. The notion of an entire religion allowing this to be their sole permissible form of gambling, usually as their own fundraisers? That’s an issue worth investigating. And “Bingo” ignores it completely.

All we get instead is a tag-along on a bingo cruise, a visit to England to see how the other side plays (which, aside from a brief rundown of London slang, turns out to be little more than repeats of the same stories we’ve already heard), a check-in with some “hipper” bingo venues. The latter includes lengthy footage of a New York charity event for the gay community that does very little other than leer at the drag queens.

The final nail in this film’s coffin is the bizarre decision to underscore most of the film with the same two or three songs, all written for the film and all meant to be playful. The first time you hear a zydeco ode to the game, you’ll find it mildly cute. The second time, you’ll be yawning. The third time? You may well be cursing the inventor of the accordion.

Jeffcoat seems to have found the right subject and met all the right people. What he doesn’t do is do anything with what he has. A few decent interviews aren’t enough to make a documentary zing. What the film lacks is depth, guts, and appeal. It sets out to prove that bingo isn’t a boring game, but winds up proving that movies about bingo are as lame as they sound.

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