Movie review by Greg Carlson
A consistently charming glimpse into the world of crossword puzzles, their creators, and the folks – both regular and famous – who solve them, “Wordplay” is a delightful documentary in the same vein as “Spellbound.” Even though its brainy subject matter might at first glance seem like a solitary activity not exactly suited for a gripping visual treatment, filmmaker Patrick Creadon (serving as his own director of photography) employs plenty of eye-catching strategies to involve the audience members (some viewers at the screening attended by this critic occasionally felt compelled to shout out answers at the screen).
Cutting between an interesting mixture of celebrity crossword addicts, including New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, the Indigo Girls, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, Jon Stewart, and Bill Clinton, as well as a handful of the fastest competitive solvers who participate in the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, Creadon examines a variety of perspectives on the nature of what to many might seem like a waste of time. “Wordplay” focuses exclusively on the puzzles of the New York Times, arguing firmly that its offerings are the undisputed gold standard of crosswords. Puzzle creator Merl Reagle, a regular contributor to the Times puzzle feature, offers a humorous history of the development of the modern crossword puzzle, sharing all sorts of fascinating tidbits about the de facto rules that go into creating a great puzzle (one example: no clues about bodily function allowed).
Reagan’s confederate is Will Shortz, the veteran crossword editor of the New York Times. Shortz comes across as an affable, down-to-earth fellow brimming with curiosity and driven by an obsession with accuracy and a love for the possibilities of language. Shortz, who created his own major in college revolving around language puzzles (enigmatology!), runs the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and the contestants profiled in “Wordplay” represent a goofy assortment of wonderfully nerdy characters.
Former champion Ellen Ripstein, who also enjoys twirling a baton, perpetual third-place winner Al Sanders, gifted youngster Tyler Hinman, and word wizard Trip Payne are some of the key players who converge on the 28th annual tournament. Following several rounds, in which the puzzlers fill in squares with seemingly impossible speed, the top three finishers work the final puzzle on oversized boards as the audience watches their every move. To bring us to that moment, Creadon patterns “Wordplay” almost exactly like “Spelbound,” as we wonder who will walk away the champ.
If “Wordplay” reveals any major flaws, they reside in the guarded reticence of Shortz, whose career is presented devoid of intellectual struggle or conflict. It is hard to fault the movie for espousing a positive tone – it is, after all, about something that millions of people do for fun. “Wordplay” is also very funny, waxing about whether solvers do the puzzle with a pencil or with a pen, for example. To Creadon’s credit, the movie doesn’t come off as elitist or snobbish. Sure, the top solvers belong to a pretty exclusive group, but Creadon reminds us that anyone who enjoys language can take pleasure in the grid, whether it takes five minutes or twenty-five minutes to finish.