Wordplay arrives after audiences have embraced a trio of spelling bee films
Spellbound, The Bee Season and
Akeelah and the Bee .
Wordplay reveals a similar although not identical passion for language as those films. Will Shortz discusses the history of crossword puzzles, and reveals his own particular passion for words and puzzles. He describes the pleasure he takes he creating crossword puzzles and then reads us some of his "fan" mail describing him as some kind of sadist for making a puzzle too hard or as a cheat for using a word deemed too difficult, obscure or obvious. He also explains to us how he started an annual crossword championship that brings together people like himself from around the country to compete in a weekend's worth of thinking within the box(es).
Patrick Creadon, serving as writer, director and cinematographer, builds his film around the 2005 crossword championship. He opens the film with it and then devotes the second half of the film to chronicling the competition. To fill out the rest of the film he interviews constructors of puzzles, competitors in the event and celebrity puzzle solvers that range from TV's Jon Stewart to former president Bill Clinton to pitcher Mike Mussina to pop music's The Indigo Girls.
From puzzle constructor Merl Reagle, we get insights into how a crossword puzzle is actually created. He shows us the symmetry of the layout, the way it is themed and the way he actually fills in the words, sometimes painting himself into devilish corners with his selections. It's a fascinating look at the process. He also reveals that bodily functions are not allowed because the clues and answers need to pass the "Sunday morning test." That means it has to be something that the family could discuss Sunday morning at the breakfast table.
It's also a lot of fun to see how different people tackle the puzzles and apply different strategies. One man has been keeping a log of how long it takes him to do each puzzle so that - as he jokingly notes - he can watch the deterioration of his mental capacities. Jon Stewart confesses that he sometimes does the USA Today crossword puzzle, but he doesn't feel good about himself when he does. Mike Mussina shows the proper puzzle position to take for filling out a crossword puzzle in the dugout and how he sometimes calls on teammates for a joint effort. Then there are those who are obsessed with becoming puzzle champions. One man wants to break the two minute mark for doing a Times puzzle, others have massive dictionaries that they consult for that rare obscure word. But they all make their obsessions endearing.
Creadon has created a delightful film but one that would benefit from some serious re-editing. His best material comes from interviews and showing how crossword puzzles fit into each of the interviewees? lives. But the second half of the film becomes too focused on just the championship competition. This kind of competition simply doesn't hold the same dramatic appeal as the spelling bee of Spellbound or Akeelah and the Bee . Creadon could have improved the film by breaking up the footage of the competition more and interspersing it with the interviews rather than letting the interviews dominate the first half of the film and the championship the second half. Clever intercutting between the two would help considerably and would give the film better pacing and narrative structure.
Wordplay (rated PG) is a fun, smart film that makes you want to go out and immediately pick up a Sunday Times puzzle to test your mental skills.
Companion viewing: Spellbound (the documentary), The Bee Season, The Pillow Book -----