In 10 Words or Less
Seven tiles and the men who love them
If you asked almost anyone what they think the excitement level of watching a game of Scrabble is, the answer is likely to fall between slim and none. After all, it's just a word game played traditionally by two groups: those who understand what "PURSLANE" means and those who want to make dirty words with those little wooden tiles. Outside of actually sitting in front of that crossword-esque board, under pressure to find a word that has three I's and a Q, there's not much interesting about the game.
At least, that's what I thought. Then I saw Word Wars.
From the opening scene, this film pulses with fun and entertainment. Starting with footage of the game being produced and a primer as to what competitive Scrabble is all about, the movie opens a whole new world. There are people in our society to whom remembering every Scrabble-accepted three-letter word is a good goal in life. Word Wars focuses on four such creatures, each very unique from each other, but all obsessed with a board game.
Matt is the most "normal" of the group. At least, he would be, if he wasn't popping more pills than the collected denizens of Studio 54 in its heyday. His seeming-addiction to an array of herbal "brain medication" and vitamins is intended to help him compete against the best, and it seems to work for him. Marlon prefers herbs as well, but he smokes his. A dredlocked bear of a man from Baltimore, he is poor and proud of it, and has many theories about European colonialism and is outspoken about the fact that he speaks English, when he should be speaking African. He's also one hell of a Scrabble player.
"G.I." Joel is a man with no life outside of the game. None. He also has horrible digestion issues that have him drinking Maalox like water and using the bathroom constantly. One can only feel pity for him, and he understands that, almost embracing his bizarre life. Last, but not least, as he is the reigning Scrabble National champion, is Joe, who espouses his Zen philosophy to anyone who'll listen (and those that won't.) Almost like a Larry David mixed with Confucius, he spews forth his theories about energy and Scrabble, and it makes those around him none too happy.
Though the film focuses on these four, using various time frames before the National Championships in San Diego, it takes enough sidetracks to look at all the unusual and interesting aspects of Scrabble. From the people who play in Washington Square Park in New York, to arguments over what derogatory terms should be allowed in play, to a young child starting out on his path toward becoming a "Word Warrior," there's little about this world that isn't covered at some point in the film.
Importantly, the film pulls no punches. We see these characters at their highest and lowest points. Marlon, in particular, is fascinating to watch. Here's is a charismatic man, who has knowledge of more words in his head than the majority of the population, but has no job, does drugs and visits prostitutes, while at the same time using Scrabble to teach underprivileged youth about spelling and math. A walking contradiction, he is easily, the star of the show.
Word Wars doesn't judge in any way, but it really doesn't have to. Unlike many documentaries, the subject matter isn't exactly life-or-death, and there's no central issue to examine. This movie is a passport to another way of life, one that is equally fascinating and disturbing, and the movie does an amazing job of bring it all to life, with a very observant lens and some innovative techniques that make each face-off between these alphabet wizards as interesting as a Sunday football game.
Anchor Bay is distributing this documentary under their FeatureDocs banner, but all that means is a graphic across the top of the box and some related trailers on the DVD. The packaging is standard keepcase, with a two-sided insert that lists the chapter stops. The main menu is animated, obviously with a Scrabble theme, and includes a play film option, scene selections and bonuses. The scene selection menus include still previews and titles. There are no set-up options, no subtitles and no closed captioning.
Though a documentary, the full-frame digital video looks good, though it is of course limited by the source stock. External shots can glow slightly and indoors can be grainy, but overall, there's not much to complain about here. The many visual effects used to heighten understanding of the game being played look great, and give the whole film an energy it would have otherwise lacked. There doesn't seem to be any sign of trouble in the transfer to DVD.
The audio is presented in Dolby 2.0, as is the case with many documentaries. The original music, which helps create a sense of fun and excitement in the film, giving it almost a Sneakers or Oceans 11 vibe, comes across well, while the dialogue is captured quite naturally. At times, it can be hard to understand, but if someone says something particularly interesting or important, it's repeated in a burned-in subtitle. A nice job for a limited audio subject.
Over 20 minutes of bonus (or deleted) footage makes up the bulk of the extras. It follows the same themes as the main feature, just covering some time frames that didn't fit into the flow of the movie. In a nice coda, this segment also includes a "Where are they now?" portion that updates the stories of some of the film's characters.
Three trailers for other FeatureDocs round out the package.
The Bottom Line
This is just about the perfect documentary for anyone. Instead of an issue that has sides to illustrate (and then take), this simply brings the audience into a world they've likely never seen before, shows them around and then says goodbye to that world. The unique and entirely human characters make it easy to sympathize, empathize and pity these people who have let their obsession take over and ruin their lives. And yet, there's a definite sense of humor to the proceedings, one that's aided by a fantastically stylish presentation in creating an absolutely entertaining film. Whether you like Scrabble or not, Word Wars is worth watching.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.