dir. Chaikin, Petrillo
Opens Fri July 9
Scrabble's not much of a spectator sport. Nonetheless, Word Wars, a documentary following some of the game's top competitors through a national tournament, attempts to get water from a stone. Its structure is similar to that of Spellbound, 2002's adorable documentary about kids competing in spelling bees, and both films bank on the amusing qualities of nerdy, quirky subjects. The difference is that Spellbound's nerdy kids are infinitely more amusing than Word Wars' nerdy adults. Plus, the kids gripe about money a lot less.
The film takes on four Scrabble diehards, offering a glance into their inarguably pathetic lifestyle. Only one of them is gainfully employed, so much of the tournament's tension comes from the fact that its competitors could really, really use the top prize of $25,000.
"G.I. Joel's" excuse is his poor health (he suffers from a mucousy gastrointestinal ailment, thus the nickname), claiming that Scrabble is the only activity his body will allow him to do for any length of time. (How about data entry? Copyediting? At-home envelope stuffing?) Matt, the nearest to normal of the bunch, is basically a happy-go-lucky slacker who doesn't care too much about money--except when he loses it on Scrabble games. The most colorful character is Marlon, an African American, temper-tantrum-prone pothead from Baltimore whose rants about language's relationship to race are belligerent but insightful, although frustratingly brief. Even more frustrating is his utter refusal to do anything with his obvious intelligence other than sitting on his ass playing Scrabble and living off his mom.
The charms of these characters are minimal, which isn't surprising, considering their idiot savant-like obsession with honing a useless skill (they don't care what all the words they know how to anagram actually mean). A partial exception is G.I. Joel, who scored some points with my mothering instincts for being such a waifish underdog of life.
Minus a few of Marlon's spliffs, the film delivers a sober anti-addiction warning. Apparently, Scrabble can be almost as life stunting as crack--so when the winner is crowned, it's like "Great--you're now king of the crackheads."