Word Wars

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/29/05 12:58:40

"Falls short of a 50-point bingo but still racks up plenty of points."
3 stars (Just Average)

One of my favorite books of the past few years is Stefan Fatsis’ “Word Freak,” which documented the obsessive subculture of Scrabble tournament players. Now, with the documentary “Word Wars,” from directors Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo, we can finally put faces on those megastars of the Scrabble circuit.

Yes, “megastars of the Scrabble circuit.” For here, as in the book, we have four of the biggest names in everyone’s favorite Crossword Game: Marlon Hill, whose angry attitude and penchant for profanity makes him hard to miss in any tourney; Matt Graham, aspiring stand-up comic whose dependency on a variety of vitamins, herbal supplements, and countless other pills keeps his system permanently out of whack, even if it doesn’t stop him from being a top contender; Joe Edley, defending national champ, New Age guru, and arguably the most feared player in tournament circles; and, of course, “G.I.” Joel Sherman.

If you’ve read the book, you’re unable to forget Joel. The “G.I.” stands for “gastrointestinal,” that part of Joel’s body that leaves him constantly burping, farting, chugging the antacids like they’re Gatorade. Joel, like so many others featured here, have Scrabble tourneys as their only source of income - but then, these guys couldn’t handle day jobs anyway. Like the obsessed folks seen in “Cinemania,” the recent documentary about film buffs overly dedicated to the New York film scene, the subjects of “Word Wars” spend every waking hour talking, thinking, devouring Scrabble.

The difference between the average player and the devoted champ is all in this obsession. Think you have a good handle on the language? Consider these guys, who memorize entire word lists, complete with every variable anagram, every possible combination of extra letters, every word that has a “Q” but not a “U.” To Scrabble champs, words are abstract collections of letters, their definitions useless - perhaps explaining why so many foreign players, many of which don’t even speak English, are able to excel in the game. To try to learn every definition to every learned word, Marlon warns us, would drive you insane. For Scrabble, the letters are all that counts.

The film carries the viewer through the year leading up to the 2002 National Championships, following the four subjects as they engage in smaller tourneys, visit New York’s infamous Washington Park (where Scrabble hustlers reign supreme), try to get a handle on everyday life. Their paths cross and recross, friends and enemies alike. (Edley remains the only outsider, really, as Graham and Hill have built a love-hate relationship equal to a married couple, and Sherman, the lovable schlub, keeps his door open for on-the-side challenges such as a best-of-fifty Scrabble marathon with Graham. Edley, meanwhile, remains disconnected from this group, perhaps due to his oversized ego, or maybe his penchant for annoying New Age trappings, or maybe, simply, his class status - he’s the only character with a day job, the only one here living comfortably. His suburban lifestyle separating him from the others’ money struggles.)

Where “Word Wars” slips, at least for me, is in its failure to go as deep as Fatsis’ book. With a scant 80-minute running time, the filmmakers are unable to give us the rich details of these four individuals and the highly intricate background of the game they love. Things fly by fast here, Chaikin and Petrillo feeling pressure to cram as much movie into as little space as possible. What this story needs is a chance to breathe, for the audience to settle more comfortably into this world of letters, words, and anagrams.

As it is, everything here sticks to the superficial, the bare essentials of the story. The only person we really feel we get to know here is Marlon, whose bold rants on all things racial and political make sure he’s one to follow. Here’s a fascinating case, a shatteringly intelligent man with plenty of resources, but a lazy attitude that wastes them. The film hits us hard when we watch Marlon visit a local school to discuss Scrabble; he talks big about winning and taking home big money, and we realize that he’s a guy who’s used to talking big without following through.

I’d have loved to have had as much detail given to the other three subjects (at least the book explains how Sherman is able to remain unemployed, and how all those drugs affect Graham). Yet even with so much information lacking, “Word Wars” is still quite a treat. These guys are endlessly fascinating, and even a lighter, quicker examination of their lives sucks us in; if nothing else, the film acts as a sequel of sorts to the book, which is satisfying in itself. And no matter how much one can complain at the lack of detail, the film saves itself with its triumphant finale. I won’t reveal who wins the big tournament at the end, but I will say that it’s a wallop of a finish, a great big emotional charge right when the movie needs it most.

Comparisons to the spelling bee documentary “Spellbound” are inevitable, and while “Word Wars” fails to reach such glorious heights, it’s still a worthy counterpart. Here, Chaikin and Petrillo shine a light on a beguiling subculture. Watch the movie, then go deeper with the book. You’ll never look at the game the same way again.

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