I am not particularly a puzzler, but Wordplay, Patrick Creadon
’s ode to crossword makers and lovers is so reverent and infectious, it’s hard not to get caught up in the desire to put letters in all the empty boxes – in pen. I have never so badly wanted to finish a crossword.
Wordplay is a fairly unabashed tongue bath of the practice of crosswords, but it's an enthusiastic and cheeky one that does more to rally everyone to get into the nerdy entertainment of puzzles rather than alienate those who can never figure out anything past 2 Down. There are times when this documentary feels like product placement for the New York Times, with all the praise heaped on the paper in general and its puzzle in particular, but Will Shortz
, the longtime editor of the Times crossword, is the mega-celebrity of the puzzle world, so perhaps it's fair. Article continues below
Shortz is a lifelong puzzle lover (he even managed to get a self-designed degree from Indiana University in “enigmatology,” the study of puzzles) who is both the hero and devil to millions who attempt his daily games. He reads from some of his (amusingly bilious) hate mail, but the film spends far more time with a legion of celebrity fans – including former President Clinton
, Jon Stewart
, Yankee’s pitcher Mike Mussina
, and documentarian Ken Burns
, among others – who wax poetic about the genius of the daily crossword and the place it holds in American culture. It sounds slightly overblown, but when you watch the ritual these people put into it – folding the paper just so, taking care to select the appropriate writing instrument – it is clearly not an idle pastime.
Probably the most instructional is the time spent with Shortz’s colleague Merl Reagle
, one of the many who actually create the puzzles for the Times, who skims through the rules and artistry involved in making one of these puzzles – that will undoubtedly bring frustration and personal triumph to many – with impressive deftness. And just when the star-studded interviews were beginning to feel like fawning song-and-dance shows, they culminate with the various folks tackling the puzzle we previously saw Reagle create, making for a particularly endearing sequence.
Inevitably, this movie will face numerous comparisons to that last documentary in praise of geeky American wordsmiths, Spellbound, and it’s not a bad one, especially as the latter half of the film begins to focus on the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament that takes place every spring in Stamford, Connecticut. We meet a few of the notable competitors in the first half of the film, seeing them in their day-to-day lives: A cocky student from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a mild-mannered pianist in New York, an upbeat gay guy living in Florida. It’s here, though, that they really settle into their element, minor celebrities among the small group of puzzle enthusiasts devoted to their yearly three-day pilgrimage to a Marriott in suburban Connecticut.
Wordplay veers a little far into the sappy when it tries to get across the deep and heartfelt importance that this conference – and puzzles in general – means to these people with slo-mo musical montages and choked-up interviewees, but the competition itself is surprisingly energizing. Especially since it is a bunch of people sitting around filling in crosswords – it’s not NASCAR, after all – but you get surprisingly invested in who will come out on top. The real fun of the film, though, is that it maintains that baffled, quirky sense of humor throughout, so the competition itself is interesting, but the best part about it is the table of commentators running a play-by-play of the action. Of filling out a crossword. Who knew such a thing existed?
We do now, thanks to Creadon and a documentary that is as sweet and charming as it is fluffy and slight. But that’s all right – sometimes all a documentary needs for a resounding moment is one subject giving an earnest interview about how preferable the lively Q is to the uninteresting and dull letter N.