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Word Wars is a documentary about the trials of playing on the Scrabble tournament circuit. It follows four very different players on the road to the national tournament in San Diego, where the winner will win $25,000.
In the last few years, there have been successful documentaries about spelling bees, migrating birds, and alleged child molesters. The decision by directors Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo to take an in-depth look at a diverse group of people obsessed with words and letters and putting them together for fun and profit proves again that quality documentaries need not be just about politics.
At its most basic, the movie provides the general rules of Scrabble, as well as covering the origins and history of the game, including a controversy regarding offensive words found in the Official Scrabble Dictionary. The opening credits run over a factory line producing the games, and there's even has an interview with the president of Scrabble manufacturer Hasbro, who seems genuinely amused with the players' obsession. The movie also touches upon the contrast between the national tournament players and the rowdy crowd that gets together to play every weekend in New York's Washington Square Park. The movie is surprisingly sophisticated, using impressive visuals to show the words on the scrabble board. The use of scrambled words and letters also helps to get the mindset of these dedicated players, who are the true stars of the movie.
Like the subjects of the documentary Cinemania, most of the players are a bit weird and scary in their dedicated obsession to the game. Most of the players seem like savants, living and breathing words and not taking care of important things like earning a living and personal hygiene. They spend hours studying words, and since many of them can't hold down jobs, winning the tournaments is crucial to their continued livelihood.
You can't help but watch with morbid fascination as the players take their obsession to insane heights, at times even making role game players seem cool. They take the tournaments very seriously, analyzing their games after the fact as onlookers giggle and smirk. And when the tournament is over for the day, they're back in their hotel rooms—you guessed it—playing scrabble. As pathetic as they may seem, you can't help but get sucked into their world as you root for them to achieve the validity they so desperately demand.
The four key players, who are followed from their preliminary tournaments through to the nationals, couldn't be any more different:
First, you have Joe Edley, the #1 ranking scrabble player in the country and a family man who uses zen meditation to try to stay balanced during tournaments. Confident and full of himself, he conducts seminars and lectures on playing the game, but that doesn't help him from getting beaten by a New York restaurant owner in an impromptu match in Washington Square Park. Edley is definitely the "heavy" or the "bad guy" of the movie, if only because he's the one that the rest need to beat.
Next, you have Marlon, a tough pot-smoking African American from the hood, playing against stereotype and often facing ridicule for his choice of pastimes. His use of profanity would make him seem ignorant, if not for his knowledge of words and his high ranking, but he also proves to be the player with the most depth, spending his free time teaching the game at an inner city school.
His "pal" Matt Graham is another story. A very competitive player, Matt got into scrabble for the gambling and the money, using brain drugs to enhance his mental power. He's close to broke most of the time, so when he goes through an entire regional tournament to win $875, you can almost feel his exuberance.
The final player, "GI Joel" Sherman, is a neurotic and chronically sick nerd who lives and breathes the game, because admittedly, he is unqualified to do anything else. (Joel was never in the army; the "GI" stands for "gastrointestinal" to describe his chronic health condition.)
The movie's best moments show the strange symbiotic relationship between the latter three, whose "friendship" revolves around their passive/aggressive gameplay. Matt and Joel even face off in a best-of-50 marathon game for $1000, but Marlon puts it best when he says that he can't figure out why he stays friends with Matt. (I won't repeat the epithet he uses for him.) This relationship builds up to the well-documented national tournament, which builds to a dramatic climax with surprises that leave you with a definite sense of irony.
Word Wars might very well turn these three quirky guys into the strangest of pseudo-celebrities. (I still remember how excited I was the first time I saw one of the cinephiles from Cinemania at a local theatre.)
The Bottom Line:
In a decade that is producing some of the best documentaries of our times, Word Wars is a welcome and very unique addition to the ranks. Its clever look at four men's obsession with a pastime that few might even find interesting before seeing the movie, makes it a more satisfying experience than last year's Spellbound. A triple word score, for sure.
Word Wars opens in New York on Friday, June 11th.