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The classic board game, Scrabble, has been popular for decades. In addition, there are fanatics who devote heart and soul to this game to the expense of everything else. This film profiles a group of these enthusiasts as they converge for a Scrabble convention where the word game is almost a bloodsport. Written by
Kenneth Chisholm (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The last line in the credits reads "This film is rated 1900" - a reference to the National Scrabble Association rating system (1700 and above is considered an expert rating; typically only elite players get to 1900 and up). See more »
Scrabble-lovers know what it's like to be hooked by the game. But for most of us, it's still only a game, not an obsession. The people in "Word Wars" live for Scrabble.
The four players we meet - "G.I." Joel (gets his nickname because his gastrointestinal system's a mess and he isn't shy about it), Matt, Marlon and Joe - have turned winning Scrabble tournaments into their lives' mission. Joel's preferred beverage is Maalox; Marlon plays the angry black man, but uses his skills to help an inner-city school's Scrabble Club; Matt's more often broke than not; and three-time national champ Joe uses meditation and tai chi to psyche out his opponents, but often is so full of himself, he doesn't realize how dull his lecture on winning strategies is.
Watching "Word Wars," I was reminded of "Spellbound," the Oscar-nominated documentary about the 1999 National Spelling Bee, and wondered if this is what happens to those obsessive, driven kids who fail to win the Spelling Bee.
Filmmakers Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo worry less about the game than getting into the heads of these four chaps, none of whom is easily likable. They know and tolerate each other, but aren't really friends. But they enjoy a pleasant camaraderie. We even see one shave the neck hairs off another in a hotel room.
Chaikin and Petrillo also have fun with the graphics, using titles as anagrams and allowing the letter tiles to float about as the players contemplate their next words.
What's far more interesting than tournament play are the late-night Scrabble games in hotel rooms, Scrabble-player culture, bets placed on the side ($5 per game and a nickel per point), and Scrabble games at New York's Washington Square Park, where a local restaurateur reigns supreme, even beating Joe, who, of course, returns later for a rematch. There's also an amusing discussion about the controversy surrounding the creation of an inoffensive Scrabble dictionary.
We see these four players cramming as many words as possible, rarely, if ever, bothering to learn the definitions. But there's definite skill in what they do during games and it's impressive. (We're told Matt won a game in 96 seconds!) Somehow we wind up caring about these people. When one of them gets a lousy set of tiles and walks away in frustration, we empathize. All of us who've played Scrabble have been there.
"Word Wars" is at times humorous, thrilling and even occasionally touchingly sad. It's not on par with, say, "Control Room," "Fahrenheit 9/11" or "Super Size Me," but there's something curiously absorbing about its peculiar people. And you really have to admire a film that expands the vocabulary of its audience. How many films can you say that about?
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