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.

NYT crossword editor Will Shortz

NYT crossword editor Will Shortz

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.

Former president Bill Clinton

Former president Bill Clinton

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).

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Jon Stewart of The Daily Show

Jon Stewart of The Daily Show

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.

Toward the end of the film, we follow many of these folks to the 28th annual tournament, what Reagle calls an "orgy of puzzling." There's surprising and delicious drama, at one point a three-way tie, and even a talent competition in the midst of it all. During a music-rich montage toward the end, I actually got teary-eyed—which I felt really goofy about until I noticed that a man a few seats down from me reached over and grabbed his wife's hand during the same sequence. Yeah, it's that kind of feel-good stuff.

Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls

Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls

And that's the beauty of Wordplay: It not only celebrates the world of crossword puzzles, it celebrates the wacky and wonderful people who love them. "Words connect us," Shortz tells us toward the end of the flick. So does the film, as it introduces us to people society would write off as nerdy (heck, half of them refer to themselves that way). In our image-is-everything world, it's great to see paunchy, intelligent, unglamorous people being the heroes. Their passion is contagious—as soon as the flick was over, a friend I'd brought agreed with me: We want to start doing crosswords.

If you're the kind of movie person who needs explosions or a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-makes-up-with-girl plotline, this flick might not be your type—but I'd challenge you to give Wordplay a chance. I was entertained (our half-full theater laughed aloud many times) and moved to tears, plus I learned stuff and was inspired to try a new hobby. Can your Vengeance Fest or Love Story Du Jour do all that? Though Wordplay is currently in limited release, it's worth tracking down—and surely it will gain a few more screens with all the buzz it's generating.

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At the end of the film, they finally crown a puzzle champ and ask this person how he/she feels. Displaying ironic simplicity, this wordsmither replies, "I feel good. Yep, I feel good." Search out this docu-gem and you will, too.

Talk About It

  Discussion starters
  1. Trace the way some of the puzzleheads approach a crossword puzzle and how that parallels the way they approach their other crafts (baseball, music, world politics).

  2. Why do you think each of these characters loves puzzling so much? What does it bring into their lives?

  3. What's the importance of hobbies? What role do they play in your life? If you don't have any hobbies, what would you like to try?

  4. Which of the diverse cast of characters do you relate to most? Why?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

As you can imagine, Wordplay is pretty tame. There are a few mild swear words as puzzlers work through challenging clues. In one scene, we're introduced to a puzzler who's gay, and the film shows him and his partner exchanging a quick peck on the lips. The rest is family-friendly—but due to the topic, it might be tough to get younger kids to sit through it.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

from Film Forum, 06/29/06

Which is more entertaining—a crossword puzzle, or a movie about crossword puzzles?

Wordplay takes us into the world of Will Shortz, the genius crossword-designer at The New York Times, showing us the devotion of crossword fans and the many creative agents who contribute to a puzzle's construction.

Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) says the film, "like the fictional Akeelah and the Bee from earlier this year, portrays the development of particular talents through practice and diligence. Although the personalities on display are not all entirely admirable, the film's focus on dedication, joy and community is inspirational. It's more fun than most summer blockbusters and a respite from the other nonfiction films … currently in release."

Mainstream critics have plenty of good words for this one.

Our Rating
4 Stars - Excellent
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG (for some language and mild thematic elements)
Directed By
Patrick Creadon
Run Time
1 hour 34 minutes
Will Shortz, Ken Burns, Jon Stewart
Theatre Release
July 21, 2006 by IFC Films
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