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by Jay Seaver

"I'm becoming a fan of the word-game documentary genre."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2006 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL OF BOSTON: "Wordplay" is this year's big word-nerd documentary, following in the footsteps of "Spellbound" and "Word Wars". As a member of that constituency, I'm pleased to see that the independent filmmakers of the world are catering to me in this way, and that they're not catering to me with crap, either. "Wordplay" continues the streak of these movies being highly entertaining.

(Obligatory Boston-based-guy complaint: The constant praise of the New York Times crossword as the gold standard got old for me fairly quickly. The Globe's daily crossword is not the greatest, but on Sundays they alternate between Henry Hook and Emily Cox & Henry Rathvon, who are in my humble opinion better than Shortz. Of course, since the Times owns the Globe, Shortz could very well be their editor.)

Yes, folks, people have favorite crossword puzzle constructors, although the vast majority of people who solve these puzzles probably don't give that much thought to how those puzzles come to be. It turns out that even before landing arguably the top job in American puzzledom, Shortz was a big name in the hobby: He created his own major and curriculum for "enigmatology" in college, and not long after was one of the organizers of the first National Crossword Puzzle Championship in Stamford, CT, which he still heads up today. When he took the job as the Times's puzzle editor in the early 1990s, it was a major shift in direction for the paper - his style of using fewer obscure words and more humor and pop culture was a big shift for the Times.

It's one that's greatly appreciated. Director Patrick Creadon gets a number of celebrity testimonials, and it's fun to see famous people getting real pleasure out of something ordinary. It's also entertaining to see how the celebrities' fandom reflects their public personae: Jon Stewart, for instance, talks and solves with good-natured sarcasm ("If I'm in a hotel room, I may do the USA Today crossword, but I feel bad about it afterward"); the Indigo Girls relate the process of solving to writing music. New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina discusses how crosswords can work as both a solitary or group activity. Ken Burns is hilariously overenthusiastic, describing how the grid system of a crossword reflects the right-angle construction of a modern American city. It's a stretch. Former President Bill Clinton discusses how the puzzles were a great stress reliever and reminisces about an election-day puzzle that could be solved two ways: One that read "CLINTON ELECTED" and the other "BOB DOLE ELECTED".

More interesting, though, is the inside look at how the puzzle world operates. Shortz gives us a rundown of some of the history of the Times crossword puzzle, including how it stabilized the form: Every letter must appear in two answers, no answer can be shorter than three letters, and the pattern of black squares must be the same if rotated 180 degrees. Constructor Merl Reagle demonstrates how one is constructed, good stuff for process junkies like me. The frustrated "fan mail" Shortz receives is also good for a laugh.

This sort of movie needs a competition and competitors, and Creadon happily supplies them - a father in Colorado, a former writer for the Times in New York, a puzzle constructor in Florida, and a twenty-year-old engineering student from Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute. Watching them prepare, you can't help but notice that while they're not necessarily more interesting than their equivalents in Spellbound and Word Wars, their hobby seems warmer and less crazy. The words actually mean something, rather than just being letter combinations to memorize. The preparation phases of those other movies were kind of depressing to watch, but here there's a sense of fun - watching people quickly solve crosswords is much more fun than watching them pore over word lists.

It's a nicely built movie; if it were just the competition, it would be kind of thin, but the material on Shortz and the celebrity fans fills it out. The finale isn't as nerve-wracking as it could be, but it's funny as well as being competitive. Even as we're laughing at the comments Reagle and company are making, there's moments that make us gasp.

I'm a crossword fan; I recognized names in the film and in the credits. Maybe this movie isn't nearly as much fun if you don't have some prior knowledge, but it's got all the ingredients for a nifty, entertaining documentary.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=13597&reviewer=371
originally posted: 04/28/06 00:38:59
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2006 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Florida Film Festival For more in the 2006 Florida Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Independent Film Festival of Boston For more in the 2006 Independent Film Festival of Boston series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2006 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/15/06 William Goss Contagious addiction mixes w/ quite the snarky streak to make for appealing crossword doc. 4 stars
4/12/06 Kathleen M. Sullivan Loved it - grea fun! 4 stars
3/29/06 Kvon Good look at average and astounding puzzlers. 4 stars
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  16-Jun-2006 (PG)
  DVD: 07-Nov-2006



Directed by
  Patrick Creadon

Written by

  Will Shortz
  Bill Clinton
  Bob Dole
  Jon Stewart
  Mike Mussina
  The Indigo Girls

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