And with this review, ladies and gentlemen, Judge Diane Wild wins the Word Wars.
This is not your grandmother's game of SCRABBLE® .
I admit it: I'm a nerd. Specifically, a word nerd. I love reading, writing, and crossword puzzles. I was thrilled to get a dictionary for Christmas one year. I majored in English literature, minored in linguistics. But I don't like Scrabble.
When I was a kid, and my grandfather started talking about liberating a Dutch village from the Nazis, or misadventures with malfunctioning tanks, my grandmother would call me away to play Scrabble with her, because I was a girl and therefore chromosomally incapable of interest in war stories. But I was interested, though too timid to protest my removal, and thus began my aversion to the ultimate word game.
Word Wars is definitely not my grandmother's Scrabble game. If grandma had played like these guys, her words would have given grandpa's war a run for its money.
Word Wars sports the groan-inducting subtitle "Tiles and Tribulations on the Scrabble Circuit" that also raises the question: "There's a Scrabble circuit?!" Indeed there is, and the documentary follows four odd contestants—the "word warriors"—going from their homes in New York to Washington Square Park, and from tournament to tournament en route to the Scrabble U.S. Nationals in San Diego in 2002.
Matt Graham consumes memory pills and dreams of being the rock star of the Scrabble world. "G.I." Joel Sherman consumes vast quantities of Maalox (the G.I. stands for gastrointestinal). Joe Edley is, on paper, the "normal" one, with a life outside of the world of Scrabble (namely a job, wife, and child), but whose complex Zen strategy baffles. Marlon Hill is an edgy black man who believes the English language is a colonial construct, but who mellows with marijuana and is the only one of the four who can conceive of talking about someone having a nice rack and not mean her rack of Scrabble tiles.
Word Wars is like an alternate future universe of the enchanting spelling bee documentary Spellbound—as if those kids grew up with some serious social deficiencies. We see the warriors in their real lives as well as in tournaments, though at all moments they are occupied with the game. Word Wars challenges the perception of Scrabble as a gray-haired lady's game, but not that of it as an extremely uncool pastime to hang your entire identity on. These men are misfits, and not particularly likable, but they are fascinating in their obsession. "I don't have a real life compared to most people I know," says G.I. Joel sadly. "Even to most Scrabble players I know." But the movie treats their skill with respect, too. They are undeniably very good at what they do.
Directors Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo create a surprisingly fast pace and use slick graphics, onscreen word jumbles and definitions to add eccentric variety. Even the credits, DVD itself, and packaging have fun with Scrabble graphics, thanks to Hasbro allowing them use of the trademark (which specifies that it's supposed to be SCRABBLE® and not Scrabble, but I didn't want to inexplicably shout it at you throughout the review). Shot on digital video and presented in full-frame, Word Wars uses intimate shots to create a bond with its subjects. The crisp picture and natural colors suffer only occasionally from limitations of the low-budget documentary style—the odd blurry, shaky shot doesn't really distract from what is essentially a good TV-quality visual presentation. The sound fares worse, with a marginal stereo mix that doesn't always render dialogue clearly, particularly in tournament scenes with a lot of background chatter, but the filmmakers use subtitles in those instances where poor sound quality is an issue.
The extras consist of 20 minutes of additional footage, which would have slowed the pace of the movie but are interesting for even more with our four word warriors plus additional unique characters talking about their love of the game from their seats in Washington Square Park.
I never thought my Scrabblephobia would allow me to say this, but Word Wars is a fun peek into a world I never knew existed and never knew could be this fun. Don't worry, it doesn't mean that you don't have a life if you enjoy this movie. Not guilty.
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