Wordplay

Wordplay (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Patrick Creadon
viewed: 11/30/06

Crossword puzzles.  The world is divided into two types of people: those who do crossword puzzles and those who don’t.  Well, it’s easy enough to divide the world by those halves anyways.  I am on the side that does crossword puzzles with great regularity and can count it among my hobbies.  Mostly, I do the ones in the paper during my evening commute and I usually crack into the Sudoku as well.  I think that the Chronicle runs the L.A. Times puzzle mostly, which is only really interesting on Friday and Saturday.  But on Saturday, it also runs the previous week’s Sunday N.Y. Times puzzle, which most people consider to be the top of the heap in daily crosswords.

So, when I saw that there was a movie coming out about N.Y. Times crossword editor Will Shortz, I was of the set that thought: “Interesting! I’ll have to see that!”  I mean, I often think about what it must take to create a crossword puzzle, how challenging and interesting that must be.  It seemed kind of cool.

And there is a little of that in Wordplay, but not a lot.  Mostly it is a tepid, loving picture of Shortz and the crossword puzzle championship that is held in Stamford, CT for the past 30 years, and especially some of the most ardent, hardcore crossword solvers out there, the ones who make the championship an annual affair.  It ends up being a less dramatic and interesting version of Spellbound (2002), the documentary about the Scripps Spelling Bee.

The real revelation is that these people are NERDS!  Shocking, isn’t it?  The film is not intentionally exploitative of their absolute geekdom or obsessive-compulsiveness that sets these people to religiously time themselves as they race through the daily crossword puzzles, tracking their times for the big heat.  These people make comic convention nerds look downright hip.

I found the most interesting part when crossword creator, Merl Reagle, is shown creating a crossword.  I mean, that is something that I have always wondered about.  And the story of Will Shortz, while low on drama, is interesting in the sense that his devotion to puzzles led him to create a degree in Enigmatology at Indiana University.  He is certified.  But he is also the most urbane.  Reagle is also amusing.

I once met a guy who wrote logic problems for a living.  He also started as a kid who just got interested in creating his own and started submitting them to the magazine publishers.  I still think that is one of the most unique careers held by anyone that I have ever known.  Logic problems are obscure even compared to other puzzle types.  But clearly, he was cut from the same cloth as Shortz and Reagle.

But the documentary shies from trying to exploit its subjects (which could be praiseworthy considering my recent commentary on Grey Gardens (1975)), but it ends up being too nice and benign about a subject that is really duller than dishwater.  There is little drama in a 7 puzzle crossword-filling race that takes place over a day or two.  There is a little drama in the finale, but I think that they got lucky on that one.  The soft-hearted shots of the community of crossworders hugging, caring, and sharing with each other is…well…give me a seven-letter word for it.

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