Monday, November 06, 2006

Review by Sombrero Grande

Wordplay is a charming, funny and entertaining documentary all about crossword puzzles, from the people who make them professionally to the folks who solve them casually to the die-hards who square-off competitively to finish them the fastest.

Just as puzzle-maker Merl Reagle shows how he begins crafting a crossword with the theme words “Word” and “Play” at the center of his puzzle, the filmmakers behind Wordplay begin with the concept of crosswords and slowly flush out all aspects of their theme as if filling in all the puzzle’s white squares.

No angle of crossword puzzles goes untouched here as viewers are given a short history of the crossword puzzle itself and are even taken step-by-step through the crafting of a puzzle. While that may sound a bit dry and boring, the greatest strength of Wordplay is that it never is.

The experts interviewed are all enjoyable and entertaining, from New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz to college student and speed-solver Tyler Hinman, many even moreso than the celebrity interviewees that prominently grace the film’s DVD cover. Sure, Jon Stewart is a crack-up, but the film seems to lag a bit when the filmmakers feel obligated to relegate considerable screen time to celebrity crossword puzzlers like Mike Messina or Bill Clinton. The film’s eagerness to show off its celebrity guests (most brazenly on the DVD cover) is its one shortcoming, which, thankfully, is only a minor stumbling point.

After meandering all over the board on the subject of crosswords, the film fills its final squares at a climactic crossword conference and competition. Similar to the climaxes of both Spellbound and Word Wars, here is where the real nail-biting tension makes its appearance into the otherwise subdued world of crossword puzzling.

One of the finalists {minor spoiler here, folks}, who complains he always comes in third, actually finishes his puzzle first and proudly gestures to the crowd before realizing that he’d negligently left two squares blank, swears and tosses his headphones violently to the ground. Though the competition is fierce, the camaraderie and sportsmanship evident in the tournament is awe-inspiring as two of the three contestants tied for first place at one point actively challenge what they feel was an oversight that would put their closest competitor actually ahead of them in his point total.

Watching Wordplay, I was amazed by not only how much mind-bending cleverness actually goes into the creation of a crossword puzzle, but by how quickly the competitors were able to figure them out and fill them in. A fun bonus the filmmakers added allows the viewer to actually play along at times via a split-screen graphic of the clue and the puzzle squares to see how they’d match up against these puzzlers.

The DVD of Wordplay is packaged with five “unforgettable” crossword puzzles that add another layer to the interactivity of the presentation. There’s also a handful of amusing deleted scenes, including the full version of a song one of the tournament contestants wrote about crossword puzzles, and feature commentary with Shortz, Reagle and director Patrick Creadon.

Wordplay is an amusing romp through the realm of word nerds and the games they live to create and play. It will forever change the way you look at those grids of white and black boxes, and, unlike most of the cinematic fodder currently offered up for consumption in theaters, this flick might actually raise your I.Q.


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