Fantasyland, the Documentary: a short review

The movie of Fantasyland, Sam Walker’s book about his season as a fantasy rookie taking on the Tout Wars experts league, is coming out on Friday at I got an early chance to see it and here are some thoughts.

I wasn’t a part of the Tout LLC when the movie was made, so I don’t have any behind the scenes info. Jed Latkin, a trader in New York, was chosen as the regular guy to join Tout AL (which included Sam Walker) for the 2008 season. The movie takes a general approach to setting up the fantasy game, including graphics with statistics indicating the bigness of the fantasy sports world, and interviews with Jed and others who applied for the regular guy role, in which they brag about their charmless obsessiveness. Some of this can be ascribed to their competing for the job, but it isn’t pretty.

Jed, somehow, is the most charmless of all (he has a line where he says, with his child scheduled to be born on draft day, that being an involved parent doesn’t necessarily mean being there for the birth), but his alpha trading personna is actually winning as a character. Perhaps that’s why the filmmakers focus almost exclusively on his exploits, and ignore most of the expert players in the league. Jed also has the perfect sidekick, his patient and generous wife, who softens his rough edges. If she can put up with him, well, maybe we can, too.

Of the other 11 members of Tout AL, the film makes Ron Shandler the big dog, the guy Jed wants to beat. Ron plays the part to perfection, adopting a “what’s that, a fly?” attitude toward Jed, disdainfully criticizing him for trying to make a trade in April, and for driving down to Roanoke. Virginia, to Ron’s house, without calling, to try to seal a deal. These scenes are funny, and made me wish there was more interaction between Jed and the other combatants. The film feels, in terms of storytelling, a little thin, but the set pieces (Jed goes to Spring Training to introduce himself to his guys: “Hey, Justin Verlander, welcome to the Jedi Knights”) are funny, and as we go along the movie’s focus on Jed’s voice pays off.

It turns out that this is a story of one man’s attempt to live his dream, and really all we need to see of it is his point of view. His reactions and attitude are strong enough to open the window into all fantasy players’ psyches, at least partway. Fantasyland, the Documentary, is competently made with unflagging energy and should be of interest to everyone who has played this game that obsesses me. That it is a bit of pathology as well as entertainment might be uncomfortable, but it isn’t a bad thing.

There are many clips and outtakes at YouTube, which will give you an idea of the film’s flavor.