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Wordplay

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 06/29/06 23:27:52

"Sadly, no discussion about why 'Asta' pops up in ever puzzle I ever do."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

If you’re an avid solver of puzzles, chances are pretty good you’re familiar with Will Shortz. As the editor of the New York Times crossword, he has the most important puzzle job in the world. Regular NPR listeners know him as the Puzzle Master. He’s the Elvis Presley of puzzles. No, scratch that - Elvis is the Will Shortz of rock and roll. Yeah, that’s about right.

Shortz is now featured in “Wordplay,” a fascinating documentary reminiscent of “Spellbound” (which covered spelling bees) and “Word Wars” (Scrabble championships). Here, the focus is on crosswords, the people who make them, the people who solve them, and the people who spend one weekend a year at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. It’s a wonderful, jolly work, a peek into the mass appeal of something so very solitary.

The film essentially tells two stories, the main one being the ups and downs of the 2005 tournament, the other one being a behind-the-scenes look at the making of your average New York Times crossword. (“Average,” of course, being something the Times crossword never is, but you get the idea.)

Let’s look at the latter first. The film balances interviews with Shortz and puzzlemaker Merl Reagle with visits with a variety of celebrity solvers, among them former president Bill Clinton, “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, filmmaker Ken Burns, and folk-rockers The Indigo Girls. The celebs talk about the joys of solving - the daring use ink! - while some non-famous subjects chime in why some people are crossword people. It fills a need to solve things, it provides the satisfaction of a mental challenge well met, it offers a chance to best one’s previous records (the solvers that time themselves are frightening in their devotion yet awe-inspiring in their genius).

It’s such a private thing, solving crosswords, and everybody has their own thing they do, a notion highlighted as we follow all of our celebs as they crack the same puzzle. The Indigo Girls see it as a joint effort, and Mussina talks about how his teammates will gather around the page, shouting answers so quickly that the one stuck writing everything down rarely gets a chance to even look at the clues. Stewart finds a chance to joke around for the camera (his cries of “Come on, Shortz! Bring it!!” are priceless), while Clinton, in between hopeful-in-that-political-kind-of-way discussions of how everyone can attain intelligence if nurtured properly, impresses by solving away as he speaks (his classic Clinton-ism of multitasking).

Cleverly woven throughout all of this is a careful examination of what it takes to craft a good puzzle, something that to me has always seemed to be one of the most impossible of feats, yet somehow a fine group of wise folks manage to churn out puzzle after puzzle without breaking a sweat. We’re taught the history of the game, how the Times is responsible for many of the general rules of crossword building - mostly structural (symmetrical grids, no stand-alone letters or two-letter words), but also in guiding what kinds of words are never allowed. As Reagle puts it, “no bodily functions,” and come to think of it, he’s right. I can’t think of a single crossword I’ve ever solved that used “rectal” or “urine.” Good rule.

We also watch as Reagle builds from scratch a brand-new puzzle, one with a “Wordplay” theme to it. See how the placing of certain words blocks others from being placed elsewhere in the grid? See how consonant and vowel patterns are key to a successful puzzle? It’s mind-boggling stuff, to think of all the energy, vocabulary knowledge, and just plain luck that goes into putting 54-across where 54-across winds up.

There’s more clever weaving. Crammed in among both the puzzlemaker and solver stuff is even more: a look at the looming tourney and those bound to do well in it. We meet a wide variety of tournament regulars, look in on their puzzle habits, hear them discuss what makes them crossword people (former champ Ellen Ripstein gives the best answer: “I guess I’ve just accumulated a lot of useless knowledge”). Somewhere just past the halfway mark, we slowly begin to focus more and more on the tournament, until we’re neck-deep in the thing, biting our nails over who’ll make it to the final round. Fortunately for the movie, 2005 proved to be an especially eventful year, with plenty of grand surprises and twists worthy of Hollywood. And because these are all genuinely nice people, you want them all to win. Cheering them on comes effortlessly.

The best part in all of this? The interaction. During one introductory scene, which shows Shortz at work doing NPR’s Sunday morning challenge, the audience at my screening was buzzing, solving, under their breaths or in whispers to their friends, the questions before the hapless contestant could. Later, to keep viewers engaged during the championships, the film shows us clues on screen, asking us to solve along.

Which is part of why “Wordplay” is simply so much fun. It’s a treat for crossword fanatics as well as the novice, as it gets to the very heart of why puzzles can be so deeply rewarding - and deeply frustrating. “Wordplay” is downright whimsical in its love and appreciation for the crossword crowd, and it’s an affection so lively that you just can’t help leaving the movie eager to dive head first into the nearest puzzle.

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