A conventional study of unconventional competitors, “Word Wars” is fitfully fascinating as it follows four not-always-friendly rivals at the 2002 National Scrabble Tournament. Cable-bound docu might have extended life as a homevid product pitched to other Scrabble enthusiasts.
Helmers Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo often take a tongue-in-cheek approach to a game treated with utter seriousness by obsessed aficionados (to wit, pic’s jokey subtitle: “Tiles and Tribulations on the Scrabble Circuit”).
Pic explains insider terminology during a briskly witty prologue — a “bingo” occurs when someone is able to use all seven letter tiles in a single turn — and uses clever graphics to scramble and unscramble letters as they’re “seen” in the mind’s eye of a player. Fleetingly, the helmers also note contentious negotiations between players and Hasbro — the company that owns and markets the board game — over whether to allow potentially offensive words in official Scrabble dictionaries.
Early on, the pic emphasizes that a knack for deciphering anagrams is the key to any Scrabble champ’s success. You’re a step ahead of the game if you can instantly read “Eric Clapton” as “narcoleptic.” It also helps if you can memorize a dictionary or two. That’s what defending champ Joe Edley reportedly did while working as a security guard. And he continues to cram by studying handwritten word lists — even while he’s driving, pic amusingly depicts in throwaway scene.
Videotaped over several months leading to the U.S. championship in San Diego, “Word Wars” focuses on Edley and three other Scrabble competitors. Marlon Hill, a dreadlocked and foul-mouthed malcontent, masters arcane spellings even while he complains that English has robbed him of his African identity. Matt Graham, a part-time stand-up comic, seeks competitive edge in herbal boosters and “smart drugs.” Joel Sherman also relies on medicinal aids, but only because his gastrointestinal ailments are sufficiently severe to earn him the nickname of “G.I. Joel.”
All four players acknowledge sacrifices endemic to life as a “professional” Scrabble player. Cash prizes are relatively puny — the San Diego event touts a $25,000 purse — and side bets between tournament players are common. Matt and Marlon are chronically cash-strapped, and Joel bluntly admits: “I have done very little to contribute to society.” Everyone involved convincingly claims to be motivated primarily by love of the game. No one ever admits it, but they appear equally driven by opportunities to enjoy the company of like-minded eccentrics.
It would be unfair and inaccurate to describe pic’s tone as condescending. Still, “Word Wars” comes perilously close to bemused mockery as it examines how its four subjects deal with stress and self-doubt. More than once, a player appears poised on the edge of emotional meltdown. It almost comes as relief for aud when Marlon, desperate to distract himself from pressures of game, zips across the border to troll for hookers on a free evening during the San Diego tournament.
Pic’s major failing is its inability to generate rooting interest in any of the competitors during the final Scrabble showdown. Granted, many auds may want to root against Edley, who comes across, either by accident or design, as ineffably creepy. But there’s a pronounced lack of emotional pay-off that likely will derail any attempts to position “Word Wars” as an aud-friendly crowd-pleaser with breakout potential comparable to “Spellbound.”