Word Wars (2004) Poster

(2004)

User Reviews

Review this title
18 Reviews
Sort by:
Filter by Rating:
10/10
Pathetic, or enlightened?
chamletter18 July 2004
I have to disagree vehemently with littlesiddie (though I do love Cambridge, LS!) -- Word Wars is one of the funniest, most engrossing, and occasionally even touching movies I've seen in the past few years, and I don't even like Scrabble. The movie introduces us to 4 top Scrabble competitors, with very different backgrounds, personalities, and approaches to preparing for combat. Their stories reveal a lifestyle that is consumed with Scrabble, as the competitors spend hours memorizing obscure words and battling each other into the wee hours, oblivious to their surroundings, their poverty, their lack of girlfriends....Our heroes (no heroines; women apparently just aren't that obsessive) are at once pathetic, inspiring, and hilarious as we watch the tension build toward the ultimate showdown, the final test of memory, stamina, and individual dominance, the national championship for the big bonanza...grand prize $25,000. Are they just laughable geeks, with no sense of what's important in life? Or are they the truly enlightened, having found their Nirvana in the land of triple word scores? (Plus you learn a lot of cool words.)
12 out of 14 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
6/10
Interesting insight into an odd obsession
anhedonia25 August 2004
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?
9 out of 10 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
10/10
Especially for Scrabble enjoyers
mbnx17 August 2004
Anyone who has enjoyed a game of Scrabble will enjoy this movie. The Scrabble champions depicted in the movie (real people, not actors) play a game unlike any you're likely to find in the family living room. Words you've never heard of are so common in their games that you almost want to have a dictionary by your side while viewing the film. The only thing stranger than the words are the contenders themselves. "Neurotic", "self-centered", and "compulsive" are a few of the words that can be used to describe them. But, you can't help but watch them--kinda like watching a train wreck in some ways.

If you are in the category of "Scrabble enjoyers", you will also like the book "Word Freak" by Stefan Fatsis (the book, in fact, is the genesis for the idea of the film).
5 out of 5 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
8/10
An accurate depiction.
wsered18 May 2004
As a former tournament Scrabble player, this documentary was a delight to see. (I know and have played all four of the main subjects of the film.) People in that scene, especially at the top, are really that eccentric -- it's part of the allure of the tournament circuit, playing against people who are incredibly devoted to study and strategic analysis. The film accurately captures both the heart of the competitors as well as the frenetic energy that develops around trying to be the best. The documentary is informative beyond this one particular topic, in that way.

As far as documentaries go, it's clearly a second-tier documentary film. (It's not a "Capturing the Friedmans", a "Fog of War", a "Startup.com".) However, if you have an interest in seeing mad geniuses at work or the game of Scrabble taken to an extreme, I recommend this film highly. (8+ out of 10)
5 out of 5 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
9/10
Best Scrabble® Documentary to date
turnip-730 April 2004
This film is without a doubt the best Scrabble® Documentary film yet made. The story follows the efforts of four very different top-level Scrabble® players in their attempt to win the title of 2002 National Scrabble Champion. The directors highlight the disparate backgrounds and approaches to the game of the four principles, from the Tai Chi of 3 time champion Joe Edley to the mind-enhancing pharmaceuticals of Matt Graham. The film uses engaging graphics to explain how Scrabble® is played at the pro-level, and to highlight brilliant plays and anagrams. The audience gets a chance to "play along" with many plays of the main characters and many others on the tournament circuit. In addition, the story takes a foray into the subculture of "the parkies", the serious Scrabble®-playing denizens of Washington Square Park, NYC, and the history of the controversy that created the two dictionaries in use for Scrabble® today, one for the tournament players, and one for the general public.

By focusing on the people and not history of the game, Word Wars shows the tournament Scrabble® scene at its most human.
4 out of 4 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
9/10
Excellent Docu for people who like Docus
tgage-210 April 2006
Extremely well-paced flick with excellent climax (unlike many meandering documentaries) it is much like an adult "Spellbound." Much like that movie, these people are fascinating characters more than anything else, and in many instances scrabble takes a backseat to the force of their personalities. It focuses on four masters competing in the days leading up to the Nationals - between the egos involved, the inter-personal problems and competition anxiety there is a ton of pathos and conflict that is also reminiscent of Fred Wiseman's early documentaries. I agree there could have been more focus on the nitty-gritty of specific matches or more information on strategy, but I think I (and others) would have gotten bored watching too much actual scrabble play.

If you like documentaries at all, this comes highly recommended, it is very well edited and maintains interest the whole time.
3 out of 3 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
10/10
Informative, often depressing film about obsession
ivescharles5 March 2006
Warning: Spoilers
I just watched "Word Wars", which is about tournament Scrabble players. I really enjoyed "Spellbound", a similar documentary about the national spelling bee contest, which also tracks the trajectories of 4 competitors, so I thought I'd be equally enlightened.

The Scrabble enthusiasts turn out to be largely unemployed, geeky, and with limited social skills. The game has consumed their lives, and they spend almost every waking minute memorizing anagrams for given sets of letters. (Did you know that Narcoleptic is an anagram for Eric Clapton?) Making matters worse, the top prize in the national Scrabble competition is $25,000; smaller competitions pay far less. Not a lot of money is at stake, so most of the "pros" scrape by on a meager existence (usually living off their families.) One of the film's subjects explained that his brain was now conditioned for one purpose, and that he had no other skills or abilities, and thus could not contribute to society in any meaningful way. Rather than making me more interested in the game, it somewhat horrified me; it seemed more like crystal meth or crack cocaine in its debilitating drug-like effects on those smitten with it.

I actually would recommend the film; I did find it fascinating to watch, but at the same time I was depressed by it.

Perhaps the most poignant moment in the film occurs when one of the film's subjects (the one who previously explained that he was no longer capable of any socially or economically redeeming activity, someone racked with medical ills brought on by the anxiety of his condition) sits at a piano, and in a perfectly beautiful voice accompanies himself as he sings the Lennon/McCartney song:

Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup, They slither while they pass, They slip away across the universe. Pools of sorrow waves of joy are drifting thorough my open mind, Possessing and caressing me.

Jai guru deva om, Nothing's gonna change my world...

And by the way: The Q without U words accepted in the U. S. Scrabble list are: QAT, QAID, QOPH, FAQIR, QANAT, TRANQ, QINDAR, QINTAR, QWERTY, SHEQEL, QINDARKA, and SHEQALIM (alternate plural of SHEQEL). The combined US/UK list (SOWPODS) adds (from Chambers Dictionary), with their plurals: BUQSHA, BURQA, INQILAB, MBAQANGA, MUQADDAM, QABALAH, QADI, QAIMAQAM, QALAMDAN, QASIDA, QI, QIBLA, QIGONG, QINGHAOSU, QIS, QIVIUT, QWERTIES, QWERTYS, SUQ, TALAQ, TRANQ, TSADDIQIM, TSADDIQ, TZADDIQIM, TZADDIQ, UMIAQ, WAQF, and YAQONA.

If you'd like to spend your waking hours memorizing useless crap like this, take up a Scrabble addiction.

Otherwise, watch "Word Wars".
3 out of 3 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
9/10
Great and Funny Documentary - A Must See!
waiverwirepicks1226 May 2004
I was one of the lucky few people to see WORD WARS at the 2004 Sundance Documentary Film Festival. Besides being a huge fan of documentary film, who hasn't played Scrabble once in their lives?

WORD WARS follows the lives (but I use that term loosely as you will see) of 4 top Scrabble players as they head to the National Scrabble Championships in San Diego, CA. To become a top Scrabble player, you pretty much have to give up all semblance of a normal lifestyle. >From shots of players practicing while driving, to the rooms filled with piles of books, the film gives a detailed, but humourous, look into these player's Scrabble obsessions.

My favorite character was Marlon Hill - the dude from the rough part of Baltimore, who waxes poetic on the injustices heaved upon the African-American community, while smoking a ton of pot, ALL while destroying his competition.

From the tight editing, excellent cinematography, and great use of The Beatles "Across the Universe", WORD WARS will leave you scrambling for more. Even if you have never played a game of Scrabble in your life - and who hasn't - this film is thoroughly enjoyable!
2 out of 2 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
Word Wars is an amazing, exhilarating, and interesting film!
Kreemie1873 June 2004
Word Wars, a comical documentary that traces the lives and study habits of four Scrabble enthusiasts, is fun and interesting from the beginning. Eric Chaikin, the brilliant writer and director, uses awesome, eye-catching graphics in the opening credits. From there, we are introduced to the "characters", each of whom has a unique, intriguing lifestyle. The film teaches the Scrabble basics, and draws the audience into the fun and competitiveness on the Scrabble circuit. We see the players as they train for the National Scrabble championships. Whether studying by means of meditation, or by means of playing endless games of Scrabble and memorizing volumes of words, all the players share a profound love for the game. I absolutely loved Word Wars. I loved the intense competition, and I loved the comical presentation of the Scrabble Circuit. Word Wars is a must see!
1 out of 1 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
9/10
If you liked the book, check out the movie
This movie was inspired by Stefan Fatsis' book Word Freak. I read the book last year and really liked it, so I was looking forward to seeing the movie, which is peopled by some of the same characters. But even if you haven't read the book, the movie is still quite enjoyable. It begins several months before a National Scrabble tournament, and follows four competitors as they go through their trials and tribulations leading up to it.

The filmmakers had fun with anagramming throughout the movie, and did a very good job with letting the competitors speak for themselves. Like the book, the filmmakers visit the various sites the game is played, from living rooms to a park in New York to various competitions around the country.

If you enjoy playing Scrabble with friends, then you will definitely like this movie, which takes the game to a completely new level.
1 out of 1 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
Funny, sad, realistic
calryn11 May 2004
I saw this film during the 2nd Annual Independent Film Festival in Cambridge, MA. I like documentaries and enjoyed this one very much. This film was a great representation of the cliche' "truth is stranger than fiction." The characters were very funny - not realizing how funny they actually are (which for me makes it even funnier). I'm amazed at how far some people will go to maintain their passion for Scrabble. I thought the film was put together well and was amused by certain scenes. One where 2 players say they are not friends, wouldn't consider each other friends, but room together and in one scene you see one shaving the back of the other's neck. It was those scenes of contradiction that worked well.

I would add this film to my Indie collection.
1 out of 1 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
10/10
Who knew Scrabble could be so awesome?
strangerfruit6 May 2004
This is one of the best documentaries I have seen in quite some time. At first I thought it was a mockumentary because it is so hilarious, but after talking with the director after (who also plays scrabble,) I know that these people are real and actually this hilarious. The people that the director follows are incredible in their own ways, from G.I. (gastrointestinal) Joel to a Tai-Chi Scrabble Master to a "badarse mothaf***a" (who lives with his mom,)... this film offers an insightful view into the competitive world of Scrabble and also the people who obsess over it and commit their lives to it (many are unemployed). This is definitely a 10. You should definitely check it out if you like "Waiting for Guffman".
1 out of 1 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
8/10
An Obsession
gavin694213 May 2013
A look at the obsessive world of competitive Scrabble.

The interesting thing is that Scrabble is actually a game of math and not of words -- although it appears to be about vocabulary, to win you have to understand how to score. Sure, there is definitely an advantage to knowing how to rearrange letters in your head to make words, but you never actually have to know what any of the words mean -- just whether or not they are valid.

One of the players (Marlon) is the least like the others, and has some interesting comments about the English language (and language in general). To add to his mystique, one scene appears to show him being involved in prostitution (though it is somewhat ambiguous).

Another guy (Joe) is like a cross between Woody Allen, Larry David and a Buddhist monk... which is more neurotic and less entertaining than you might think.
0 out of 0 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
8/10
these people are nuts
phesboy29 December 2012
I really love these documentaries about people with weird obsessive hobbies or bizarre jobs - especially the ones about people that maybe never quite make it but just keep trying. This one's an absolute cracker because the half of the people featured in this film are just total A* fruit cakes. The scrabble itself it fairly interesting but it's much more entertaining watching these freaks battle their rampaging neurotic disorders.

Yes dude, you just got SLAYED at the international championships because you didn't get acupuncture first to balance your chi. Nothing to do with it being a game of chance or anything. Seriously, who dedicates their life to a game that's half logic and half chance.

Gotta love these lunatics. Great film
0 out of 0 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
6/10
Word Wars (2004)
SnakesOnAnAfricanPlain13 December 2011
An extraordinary band of misfits embark on trying to win a Scrabble tournament. I love seeing people with such eccentricities. I enjoy a good game of Scrabble, but these guys are obsessed. This also damages them as characters. Most don't have jobs, instead deciding to focus on Scrabble. Also, they don't tend to be that smart. They simply memorize what's allowed and what isn't The film takes us to a number of places and events, but never gets exceptionally interesting. It also doesn't build up the tension of the games, just simple notes on who's winning pop up on screen. A nice piece as a simple observation of a strange world, but doesn't explore the subject.
0 out of 0 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
8/10
An interesting psychological study of a subculture few of us have an idea existed!
MartinHafer30 July 2008
This film is about a small group of professional Scrabble players. Well, professional in that they play in tournaments for money and occasionally play each other for money, though the money they actually win is almost always minimal--certainly in most cases NOT enough to pay rent or have a family. Despite this very limited payoff, these folks travel the country participating in very, very serious games--at least as serious as any high-stakes poker game!

As a psychology teacher, I probably got a lot more out of this documentary than the average person. That's because instead of focusing on the games, I was fascinated by the personalities of the players, as the elite players were NOTHING like I'd expected. I had expected that they would all be great intellectuals--such as professors, Nobel Prize winners and brainiacs. However, the opposite was usually the case. Many were unemployed or worked dead-end jobs. None of them were successful in a traditional sense with jobs or family. Instead, the players were usually misfits--people lacking social graces, having severe personality disorders, filled with anger and in a few cases the players seemed on the edge of sanity. How this game dominates their lives and thinking is amazing and all-consuming--and it's truly an obsession. For the most part, I found the players to be very unlikable (especially, but certainly NOT excluding Marlon) and lacking a fully formed personality--and, interestingly enough, this didn't seem to bother these hyper-competitive players. I was also surprised to see that many didn't even seem to like the game--and one, in particular, was physically miserable during the tournaments! Yet they still played--day in and day out even though there was almost no financial compensation for doing this--even with the top players!! Fascinating, but also ultimately very sad.

By the way, the language is pretty rough in spots--parents might want to think about this before letting kids watch this documentary.
0 out of 0 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
6/10
Interesting, but the focus should have been tighter
turkam10 December 2005
Films are won and lost in the editing room. This fact is even more apparent with documentaries. I think the subject is amusing, but the film does not have the suspense of the spelling bee doc "Spellbound" nor does it capture the humor of those who are ultra-obsessive about their hobby as well as "Barbie Nation." I think better editing would have raised the quality of this film. And, there is too much emphasis on Stephan Fatsis. I think there could have been more interviews with neutral observers, such as hometown reporters who have covered the respective subjects. The film does however show a degree of objectivity, which at times had to be a challenge given the overwhelmingly ridiculous lifestyles of those in the film. I think the bigger question, which was better addressed in "Barbie Nation," is what drives this obsession? Is the nature of our commercial society, that some people will just never know when to 'say when?' On the other hand, one must also admire the determination of the subjects to achieve what they have. In the most competitive country in the world, perhaps there is no other way to win!
2 out of 6 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink
not just for word geeks
todbrody130 May 2004
I loved this movie. Though I confess to being somewhat of a word geek, I saw it with someone who has no relationship with the game whatsoever, and she too enjoyed it immensely.

It's a fond, humorous look at a world that's much weirder than anyone, even aficionados, ever suspected. The people who rise to the top of this crowd are seriously disturbed people, and the movie, with its clever graphic commentary and often just letting the camera run on something, captures this beautifully. One of the most amusing scenes shows Hasbro executives as they recount the wars over dirty words in Scrabble. We were fascinated by this film, and we laughed a lot.
1 out of 2 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink

See also

Awards | FAQ | User Ratings | External Reviews | Metacritic Reviews


Recently Viewed