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Wordplay

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/23/06 01:20:57

"Can't think of a cross word to say about this documentary"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

A documentary about crossword puzzles may not exactly strike you as the height of entertainment–such things are, after all, far more entertaining when you are doing them yourself instead of watching others do them–but Patrick Creadon’s “Wordplay” actually transcends its seemingly dull central idea and becomes a film entertaining enough to satisfy obsessives and neophytes alike.

Part of the reason it works is that it weaves two equally interesting narrative strands together in a manner that keeps the film from growing repetitive. The first strand focuses on NY Times puzzle editor Will Shortz and through him, we learn the history of the crossword and the various rules and traditions that have developed over the years. (Did you know that there is a specific pattern to the blacked-out spaces in each puzzle?) The other following various puzzle enthusiasts as they prepare to compete in the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, a three-day event in which contestants try to outdo each other by filling out their grids as quickly and accurately as possible.

The other reason thing that makes “Wordplay” work is what it doesn’t have–the vague sense of condescension that often crops up in documentaries centering on certain fringe groups. Shortz is a friendly and affable subject as he illustrates the intricacies of putting together the puzzle that entrances and stymies millions of people on a daily basis and the people that we meet who will be meeting in the competition are equally quirky and interesting. Throughout the film, some of his better-known fans appear in interviews to discuss their fascination with his work–pitcher Mike Mussina explains how he fills out the puzzle as far as he can and then calls on his teammates for relief, the Indigo Girls admit that they occasionally asks fans for help with certain answers between songs in concert and both Bill Clinton and Bob Dole pop up to talk about the Election Day 1996 puzzle, a now-legendary grid constructed in such a way so that either one’s name could fit the clue “Tomorrow’s headline,” depending on the outcome.

Although Creadon doesn’t exactly reinvent the documentary genre with “Wordplay,” he has managed to give us a film that is far more interesting and compelling than it has any right to be and when the film climaxes with the final round of the tournament–don’t tell anyone the shocking surprise ending!–even those who have never done a puzzle before in their lives are likely to find themselves mentally filling out the grids along with the competitors. In fact, when the film was over, I actually found myself compelled to start doing crosswords on my own for the first time in my life and I’ll bet that many others emerging from “Wordplay” are likely to do the same.

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