Qwerty, directed by Bill Sebastian and written by Juliet McDaniel, is billed as a romantic comedy set against the backdrop of a Scrabble subculture; but the film lacks both romance and laughs, largely due to a clunky script, stilted supporting performances and an unappealing leading character.
Our heroine Zoe (Dana Pupkin) is a quirky, yet introverted “word-nerd” living in Chicago. Her idiosyncrasies manifest themselves in her penchant for picking up discarded socks off the street to make sock puppets, and watching VHS tapes of old Scrabble tournaments on a TV set from the 1980s.
Even Zoe’s job at the DMV is slightly off-kilter; she regulates car vanity plate applications to ensure that no dirty words or phrases like “A550_RGY” (“ass orgy”) get the Illinois seal of approval. Taking her hipster-ish glasses and the character’s name into consideration, and we can’t help but think that Pupkin’s character is modeled after the reigning queen of quirky: Zooey Deschanel.
But unlike the other Zooey’s characters in 500 Days of Summer or Elf, we’re not rooting for this Zoe to get the guy. Her foil in love is Marty (Eric Hailey), a depressed security guard who seems averse to bathing and keeps a noose hanging in his apartment just in case he decides to kill himself, which he thinks about often. They first meet at the department store where Marty works, and he freaks out when he sees the price on designer underwear. He jumps on the display case and rants to customers, “$55 for underwear? No ass is worth that much!”
If the filmmakers were going for a lovable loser character like Napoleon Dynamite in Marty, they completely missed the mark.
Instead of walking in the other direction, or calling security as others do, Zoe is somehow drawn to the loose cannon. She even steps in to defend his actions to Marty’s boss, which doesn’t jibe with her personality. This is the woman, after all, who’s too meek to step into the Scrabble club room at the local library.
Marty and Zoe spend the day together, with Marty moving in after just three weeks of dating. Zoe gets her man a job at the DMV as a customer service rep, which is perfect for a misanthrope. Since no one else wants to deal with complaints, Marty gets away with hurling comebacks like, “This is the Department of Motor Vehicles, not the department of f*ck faces.”
Despite his volatile emotional state, Zoe finds confidence through this new relationship. In quick succession, she finally stands up to her unsupportive family and enters the National Scrabble Championship in hopes of becoming only the second woman to win the title. While the couple does have an active sex life, it’s devoid of romance and chemistry—we can’t buy into Zoe’s instant attraction to a guy who might harm himself (or others) at any minute.
The occasional laughs are elicited for the wrong reasons, thanks to a few cringe-worthy lines of dialogue. In a conversation with his homeless, Bible-verse spewing best friend (Bill Redding), an insecure Marty asks, “What the hell is she doing with me, Lewis?” to which his friend responds, “I’m sure she’ll wise up any minute and leave.” Marty then shifts to a story of how he accidentally killed his mom’s baby ferrets when he was a kid. There’s a correlation between the ferrets and his relationship with Zoe. He tells Lewis in a line dripping with self-hatred: “I ruin everything that is good….” Prince Charming, he isn’t.
At times, Qwerty feels like a film school thesis. Aside from the leads—who were admirable with the material they were given—many of the supporting actors gave either amateurish or lackluster performances. But in all fairness, the film does pick up during its third act, with the most interesting moments happening after Zoe joins the Scrabble club and during the national tournament. The Scrabble players—as well as the tournament’s color commentators—are an oddball group, which could have led to interesting possibilities, perhaps even venturing into Christopher Guest territory, but unfortunately, those tiles are left unplayed.
Director: Bill Sebastian
Writer: Juliet McDaniel
Starring: Dana Pupkin, Eric Hailey, Bill Redding, Joel Wiersema
Release Date: Sept. 3, 2013 (VOD)