Wordplay (2006) / Documentary

MPAA Rated: PG for some language
Running Time: 94 min.

Cast: Will Shortz, Merl Reagle, Tyler Hinman, Jon Delfin, Ellen Ripstein, Trip Payne, Al Sanders, Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, The Indigo Girls, Ken Burns, Mike Mussina, Mel Rosen, Bob Dole
Director: Patrick Creadon
Screenplay: Patrick Creadon, Christine O'Malley

Wordplay is a documentary revolving around the appeal of crossworld puzzles for many people, from the people who design them to the people who solve them.  For millions, the ritual of doing the crossowrld puzzle in the newspaper is a daily tradition, tapping into all segments of society, from bus drivers to celebrities, from young children to the president of the United States.  

Patrick Creadon's documentary isn't really about crossword puzzles in and of themselves; it isn't a history lesson (although there are some tidbits) or an in-depth exploration.  Rather, it is about the how the activity that some people see as just a fun mental exercise is quite serious in some circles, and no other publication has a higher share of rabid devotees as the New York Times, world renown for their clever and challenging puzzles that increase in difficulty from Monday to Sunday.  Interviews with famous people are sprinkled throughout, including comedian Jon Stewart, musicians The Indigo Girls, Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, and even former President Bill Clinton graciously discusses his love of crozzwords at length.  While the celebrities are mostly superfluous, they do bring to light just how extensive the crossworld puzzle hobby is, even sparking great enthusiasm in people you'd think too busy or important to have the time to sit and concentrate for indeterminate lengths in solving their daily challenges.

Along the way, we also meet several prominent contestants who will be competing in the upcoming annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the oldest and largest crossworld puzzle competition, created and hosted by New York Times crossworld puzzle editor Will Shortz.  Began in 1978, the tournament has become quite an event for puzzlers, including a talent show, guest speakers, wine and cheese reception, and of course, the heated competition which draws from the top three challengers in a race against time to see who can solve the championship puzzle first with no mistakes.

Wordplay is a fun dessert documentary that offers up a pleasant, nicely-edited look into some behind-the-scenes trivia and information regarding just what goes into the creation of the daily puzzle in your newspaper every day, as well as the kinds of people for which this daily ritual has become a borderlin obsession.  It's a marvel to see someone solve a challenging puzzle with clues that would stump most people indefinitely solve them in literally minutes, filling in the answers in about as much time as it would take most of us to just read the clues.  You won't find anything earth-shattering here, but it is always interesting and it is presented in a visually appealing fashion, with good use of split-screen action that is very apropos for a film centering around a hobby that resides completely within horizontal and vertical lines.

Although the impetus for making this contest documentary is probably based in part on the success of a previous  effort, Spellbound, both make for engaging viewing for anyone who has ever been interested in words and the mental exercises one can do to stimulate that creative part of one's brain.  It is a more benign film than its predecessor, as crozzword puzzles inspire more enthusiasm for its participants than the fanaticism of the spelling bees, which makes this a more understandable and tolerable pastime that will probably have more than one viewer buy a newspaper the next day just to take up the challenge and become a part of what was previously considered a closet obsession shared by millions.

Qwipster's rating: 

©2006 Vince Leo