Let me freely confess this: When I pick up the Mountain Xpress on Wednesday, I first check the letters to see if anyone has sent me a … uh … valentine. Then I glance at the movie pages to see how they look. With that out of the way, I settle in to do the crossword puzzle — which, I might add, is acquired from The New York Times, whose puzzles are at the center of this film. In other words, I came to this documentary on the subject of crossword puzzles, their creators and adherents as at least a once-a-week puzzle junkie. As a result, I can’t honestly say whether or not the film will have much appeal to those who have no interest in the puzzles themselves. My belief, however, is that it will because Wordplay is cleverly devised and creatively made in ways that ought to make its subject accessible to anyone.
The film is devised around Will Shortz, The Times crossword puzzle editor, and is roughly divided into two sections. The first part of the film is devoted to the history of the puzzles, the rules for creating them, and an examination of a puzzle in the making. This may sound a little dry to the uninitiated, but first-time filmmaker Creadon is very crafty in structuring the film so that it’s peppered with great anecdotal interpolations from Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, Mike Mussina, Ken Burns, The Indigo Girls and, to a lesser degree, Bob Dole.
The film really begins to take form when it follows the creation of a puzzle by Merl Reagle. It starts with a concept — the concept in this case being “wordplay” — and goes from that basic idea all the way through its solution by the film’s “guest stars.” The structure of the sequence takes on something of the appeal of a mystery film, as we watch the players/detectives unravel not just the clues, but the theme of the puzzle. (Anyone who does crosswords knows that discovering the puzzle’s theme is central to its solution. Spelling abilities and a good frame of reference are essential, but knowing what the author is after is equally important.) And much like fictional detectives, each player has his own style.
The latter half of the film concentrates on the 28th Annual Crossword Competition in Stamford, Connecticut. Anyone who’s ever been to any kind of specialized gathering of fans — from Star Trek to comic books to horror movies — will immediately recognize the kind of hermetic world depicted here. But the nature of this as a competition affords the film an added edge — and Creadon’s establishment of the major players as people we can like and care about rounds it out. All in all, it’s a lot of fun and one of the best crafted documentaries I can recall.
I concede a certain disappointment, though, in that I was hoping for a confession from Shortz in which he admitted exactly how often the answers “Asta” and “oleo” have gotten him out of a puzzle-building jam, but such was not to be. Rated PG for some language and mild thematic elements.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke