When I told a friend that I'd been assigned to write a review of Wordplay, and then explained that it's a documentary about the world of crossword puzzles, she looked at me with empathy—as if I were going in for a root canal. So sorry. Good luck with that. I mean this is a documentary. About crossword puzzles. Talk about a six-letter word for snooze-worthy starting with the letter B.
But if we've learned anything in recent years from those plucky penguins and all those spelling and salsa-dancing middle-schoolers, it's that documentaries have undergone an extreme makeover of late. If the movie industry were the world of fashion, documentaries would be the new black. And Wordplay would be a fabulous little black dress.
Wordplay opens at the 28th Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stanford, Connecticut. For neophytes like myself, finding out that puzzle aficionados actually gather once a year to competitively complete puzzles in real time seems amusing. But then we meet some of the major players, and their quirk and passion starts to win us over.
Chief among these major players is Will Shortz, the man who launched the tournament and edits the granddaddy of the sport: The New York Times crossword puzzle. Shortz is a god among puzzlers. Like Bill Gates or Tiger Woods, he not only excels at his craft, he helped put it on the map. Shortz has been making puzzles since he was eight, and sold his first one at 14. He even majored in enigmatology, the study of puzzles, a course of study he created himself at Indiana University.
Early in the film, Shortz reads us his mail at the Times, in which people alternately praise him and call him "sick, sick, sick" for bending their minds so. It's wildly entertaining—both for viewers and for Shortz. You can tell he has a great love for these folks, "intelligent, cultured people—my kind of people" he calls them.
Throughout the rest of the movie, we meet a succession of such folks, puzzle aficionados both known and unknown. There's TV host and funnyman Jon Stewart, who trash talks Shortz as he works his way through a NYT puzzle. When he yells, "C'mon, Shortz, bring it!" as he works his way through a puzzle with bravado and a ballpoint, you almost forget he's sitting behind his desk working on a crossword.
The most quirky and informative of the crew is Merl Reagle, a puzzle creator. We watch him craft a puzzle from a one-word concept: Wordplay. It's fascinating to hear him explain the science and rules of puzzledom, tell of the First Lady of Crossword Puzzles (one of Short's predecessors), and explain the Sunday Morning Breakfast Test (in other words, why you'll never find the words "rectal" or "enema" in your puzzle).
After Reagle, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns explains how crosswords are his one vice, competitor Al Sanders completes a whole puzzle in two minutes and two seconds, NYT public editor Daniel Okrent reveals that he's been recording his completion-time every day for years because he's "an obsessive creep" and wants to mark his mental deterioration, former president Bill Clinton shares his puzzle strategy, Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina shows us his puzzle stance when working on one in the dugout, and former tournament champ Trip Payne discusses his fascination with the letter Q. It's a cavalcade of quirky humanity. These folks, and the deft editing and pacing, make the film anything but boring.