Word Wars (2004)

Genres - Culture & Society  |   Sub-Genres - Hobbies & Games, Biography, Sociology  |   Release Date - Jun 11, 2004 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 80 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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An involving but not always illuminating window into the world of competitive Scrabble, Word Wars joins the documentary niche shared by Spellbound and a handful of earlier Scrabble-themed films. Like Spellbound, it's more interested in the idiosyncrasies of its characters than in showcasing the training regimens that elevated them to dominance. The problem is, the characters aren't over-the-top quirky, just shy of the type you'd find in a Christopher Guest mockumentary, which would allow them to carry the movie no matter what its topic. They have colorful nicknames like "G.I. Joel" (Joel Sherman), so named for his frequent gastro-intestinal problems, but they're mostly just intensely focused individuals who blend into the woodwork. Consequently, the Scrabble itself needs to pop off the screen and find a deeper thematic resonance for the casual, non-initiated viewer. Filmmakers Julian Petrillo and Eric Chaikin attempt to visualize and dramatize what's at stake by showing simulated racks of letters onscreen, then shuffling the letters in the air to demonstrate other potential plays and point values. But there's nothing to approximate the performative drama of a child straining to spell an ungainly word, which gave Spellbound a more edge-of-your-seat urgency. Word Wars is a useful enough but ultimately rather average documentary, the kind that closely follows the time-honored "countdown to the event" format. Scrabble-philes should find the tournament esoterica interesting, but the average viewer won't grasp the beauty of the game any better than he or she did before.