Monday, May 03, 2004

Word Wars: Tiles and Tribulations on the Scrabble Circuit

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 May 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Independant Film Festival of Boston 2004) (projected video)

It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking of the documentary as a genre, rather than a form. Most documentaries we see are serious examinations of an issue or a person; even Michael Moore's satires are issue-oriented, about something important. Word Wars will have none of that; though it's told by filming actual events, it is a comedy, and an unabashed one.

Directors Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo follow four top Scrabble players for nine months leading up to the 2002 National Scrabble Championship. Chaikin has participated in this "sport", so he knows the kind of idiosyncratic folks he'll find there. They are characters who, if they showed up in a conventional screenplay, might be considered too broad. Joe Edley, the defending champion, spouts various zen-like mantras and warms up for his matches with tai chi; "GI Joel" Sherman (the GI stands for gastro-intenstinal) is such a mass of nerves that he sucks down Maalox to quiet his stomach as if it were a milkshake. Matt Graham and Marlon Hill are also both crazy in their own ways - Matt's shelf of "smart drugs" is frightening, and he doesn't seem to have any clue how bizarre he acts; Marlon is, however, ready and willing to tell him in between rants of his own on how the fact that he speaks English is an affront to his identity as a black man. These folks apparently all show up in Stefan Fatsis's book Word Freak, and are fiercely entertaining here. As the director said in the Q&A afterward, only Edley is really functional enough to hold down a job and support a family, but even that is with the National Scrabble Association.

You can laugh at these guys, though, without feeling too bad about it. They're relatively self-aware, acknowledging that there are likely many people who contribute a lot more to society than they do. And their obsessiveness and peculiarity appears to help them in their chosen field of endeavor. There are also cuts to other people on the periphery, including a gang of Scrabble hustlers in New York City's Washington Park, along with discussion of the game's history and rules.

This movie was made for one of the Discovery Channel stations, and it looks and feels like cable TV - except, of course, for the swearing. It's something of a cliché that the black guy drops the f-bombs, but I think it'll be even funnier when bleeped, just to further contrast Marlon with the professorial type many would expect to be a top Scrabble player. (As an aside, Anthony Anderson's people should be trying to get him to play this character in a Scrabble-related comedy; it would be brilliant) Indeed, as Marlon points out, knowing what words mean in Scrabble is pretty useless; another player mentions that top Scrabble players tend to be math whizzes more than people who are good with the English language.

Documentary comedies are rare birds. You get the occasional Michael Moore-type movie, but those are often so much Moore organizing something that they may as well be scripted. It's a risky business to just turn the cameras on and know you'll have a funny movie by the end, so few people try it. Word Wars is a rare treat, worth catching if it plays a theater near you (here in the Boston area, it's scheduled for a June run at the Coolidge) or when the (sanitized) version appears on Discovery Times in late June.

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