Review: Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story

© Michael J Maloney

In recent years there have been documentaries chronicling fanatical devotees of scrabble (Word Wars), crossword puzzles (Wordplay) and video games (The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters), among other things. You could call it the genre of obsessive trivial pursuits, although to the best of my knowledge that particular board game has not yet come under scrutiny.


Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story is the latest example of this quirky cinematic trend. Now playing at NYC’s Quad Cinemas, it’s a diverting study of the world’s most popular board game.


As with most other films of this type, Kevin Tostado’s documentary focuses on the game’s most dedicated players, in this case several participants in the 2009 Monopoly World Championships in Las Vegas.


(Yes, even Monopoly has inspired a world competition.)


Presided over by, who else, Mr. Monopoly (actually Phil Orbanes, a former executive at Parker Brothers, the game’s manufacturer), the event features a grand prize of $20,580, which corresponds to the total amount of play money available in a set.


Among those profiled are a sixth grade teacher who uses the game to teach his students math skills; a Norwegian teenager eager to show up his adult rivals; the defending U.S. champion, who has a Vegas showgirl girlfriend despite his undeniably dorky obsession; and a New Zealand banker whose nickname is “The Nimble Thimble.”


While these eccentric figures are certainly colorful, they are ultimately little different from the sort of fanatics on view in other films of this type. Not to mention that Monopoly is not exactly a spectator sport that makes for compelling viewing.


The film is most interesting when it delves into the history of the game, which began life in 1905 as “The Landlord’s Game,” created to illustrate the evils of capitalism. Over many years it evolved into its present form, which ironically serves to celebrate the exact opposite in the most brutal of terms. This is, after all, a game in which a player’s goal is to have his opponents declare bankruptcy.


Fascinating tidbits are dispensed along the way, such as the fact that Monopoly sets distributed by the Red Cross during World War II were used to smuggle cash and maps to prisoners of war. And did you know that the longest continuous game lasted no less than 70 days?


By the time this entertaining if slight documentary reaches its conclusion, you’ll no doubt be rooting through your closet to dig up that well-worn set from childhood so you can revisit the game’s pleasures yourself.