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WORDPLAY (not rated) (2006)

IFC Films

Official Site

Director: Patrick Creadon

Producer: Christine O’Malley

Written by: Patrick Creadon, Christine O’Malley

Cast: Will Shortz, Merl Reagle, Ellen Ripstein, Trip Payne, Tyler Hinman, Al Sanders, Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, The Indigo Girls, Ken Burns, Mike Mussina


Before watching Wordplay, I guess I hadn’t spared much thought for the logistics of competitive crossword solving. I had most definitely thought about crossword creation. I suspect most people, or at least most puzzle people, have tried their hand at crossword puzzle construction. Tried, and come up way short. Not that we’re not smart, we’re just not smart in that special way that crossword design aces like Will Shortz and Merl Reagle are. Or in the way that their legion of extraordinary crossword conventioneers are.

I’ll tell you something. I’m sort of in that club. I met Will Shortz, via the phone lines, when I played “Sunday Puzzle on the Air” on NPR a zillion years ago. I hear Will’s voice, and Liane Hanson’s, every Sunday morning. There’s been training. There’s been acclimation. Hearing that familiar voice emerging from the movie revved my engine and put my brain in gear, so to speak. And for the rest of the picture, I was insufferably answering aloud nearly every clue I could. Movie audiences being self-selecting and all, a lot of the folks who choose to attend Wordplay are also going to be puzzlers. If you are not one of us, ask yourself whether you will find it unsettling to spend 90 minutes in a dark room full of strangers who are muttering constantly.

Some critics have written that this movie is hilarious. Hmm. Well, I guess, if you find otaku inherently funny. There are laugh-out-loud moments, courtesy of professional funny man Jon Stewart, one of the celebrity puzzle fans featured in the movie.

Wordplay introduces us to the world of competitive solvers at their annual convention in Stamford, Connecticut, then focuses on the three men who ultimately become the final contestants. I’m not going to give away who won (though of course you can look it up), and it’s interesting that it’s not precisely clear what he won. And that’s mainly what happens. Director Creadon made the unfortunate decision to pursue suspense—but alas, watching people fill in little squares can’t be made cinematically arresting—in lieu of the far more interesting stories of puzzle-creators-extraordinaire, Shortz and Reagle. Just how interesting are these guys? Shortz designed his own college program, earning a degree in enigmatology. What the hell did he study? And why don’t we find out in Wordplay?

Because the movie pretty much follows the boilerplate layout we might now call the “crowd-pleasing competition movie” or the “aren’t-people-interesting documentary,” and thus falls between two stools. It tries to stand on the shoulders of 2003’s Spellbound, about eight amazing kids in the national spelling bee, but would have done much better to emulate Errol Morris’s Fast, Cheap And Out Of Control (1997), which profiles four fascinating and fascinated guys who would probably do their jobs even for no pay. Wordplay, while not a bad movie, breaks no new cinematic ground. I expect certain subsets of the movie-going audience will love it, and I certainly can’t imagine any viewer actively hating it. If you are a fangirl or fanboy, you’ll recognize much and claim these folks as kin. If you are an avid puzzler, you’ll have a blast meeting new solvers and solving puzzles from on-screen. Even if you routinely skip the puzzle pages in your daily newspaper, there’s a certain fleeting anthropological enjoyment to be had from such films.

I guess I’m saying, meh.

—Roxanne Bogucka

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

Itís worth a full-price ticket.

Itís worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

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