Wordplay (IFC Films, PG)

To non-fans of crossword puzzles, the prospect of seeing a film about the guy who edits them probably sounds terrifically boring, but Wordplay is practically dripping with crossover appeal, and only a real failing on IFC’s promotion and releasing of the film will keep it from being a breakout hit on the arthouse circuit this summer.

 

There has been a spate of documentaries lately that focus around word-related contests, the two most notable being Spellbound, the Oscar-nominated film about kids competing in a spelling bee, as well as Word Wars, which is about guys who obsessively play Scrabble and compete in Scrabble tournaments. Since these two films are such obvious references when reviewing a film like Wordplay, a film at least partially about tournament crossword puzzle solvers, I’ll try to scale back the comparisons.

Besides, Patrick Creadon’s Wordplay starts off more as a biographical film about Will Shortz, the editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, and then goes into his American Crossword Puzzle Tournament later in the film. Shortz has a gigantic and borderline rabid following of both hardcore crossword wieners and casual crossword enthusiasts. As witnessed in the film, Shortz has fans in such luminaries as Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, and Bob Dole, as well as in many of my friends who got jealous when they found out I’d get to see a documentary about him.

To non-fans of crossword puzzles, the prospect of seeing a film about the guy who edits them probably sounds terrifically boring, but Wordplay is practically dripping with crossover appeal, and only a real failing on IFC’s promotion and releasing of the film will keep it from being a breakout hit on the arthouse circuit this summer. As compared to the subjects in Spellbound and Word Wars, the tournament crossword puzzlers are far more articulate and interesting as human beings, and make for much more interesting interview subjects (the smattering of celebrity interviews doesn’t hurt, either). We learn in short order how difficult it is to create a good, appropriate crossword puzzle (turns out that crossword puzzle creators lament that “urine” and “enema” are unsuitable as answers for a mass-marketed puzzle, as they would get them out of many too-many-vowels binds), and how easy it is for an aficionado to solve one (there’s a bravura sequence where one of the tournament players solves an entire puzzle in just over two minutes in one long, well-constructed, split-screen, unbroken take). Also, Shortz himself is a figure worthy of study, what with having one of the most singular histories in the field of puzzles (he’s the only person to ever get a degree in enigmatology, the study of puzzles, from Indiana University).

Where the crossover appeal factor really comes in is when the film eventually veers off into coverage of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which can get amazingly intense and painful to watch, considering you’re watching a film of people solving crossword puzzles. This can be attributed in large part to Creadon’s skill as a filmmaker, which is also apparent in little flourishes, such as the split-screen crossword solver mentioned above, or in his decision to shoot the film in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio and edit it boxily, as if the film itself were a crossword puzzle. It never would have struck me that a film about people who love to solve crossword puzzles would be a good idea, but recognizing good, less-than-obvious subjects is the key to being a good documentarian (just look at Errol Morris), which Patrick Creadon inarguably is.

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