Anyone who has ever spent hours agonizing over the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle is certain to love Wordplay, a spirited documentary -- more of a homage, really -- to the wondrous and wonderful world of crossword puzzles.
But if you've never known the joy of gnawing on a pencil while pondering 10-across, don't fret. You need not be a crossword connoisseur to enjoy this engaging, affectionate documentary.
Directing his first full-length documentary, Patrick Creadon assembles a valentine to the people who construct, edit and work crossword puzzles. At the heart of it is Will Shortz, the celebrated crossword-puzzle editor of The New York Times. Shortz, who created his own college major of "enigmatology" at Indiana University, is nothing short of a deity in this nerdy universe. He is also its greatest booster. Not long after joining the Times, he founded the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn., an annual contest that attracts hundreds of people nationwide.
The 28th such tournament figures prominently in Wordplay, which profiles some of its tougher contenders before culminating in the contest's final round. The top dogs are a brainy bunch, to be sure -- including suburban dad Al Sanders, former champ Ellen Ripstein, puzzle-maker Trip Payne and 20-year-old wunderkind Tyler Hinman -- and they are presented with warmth and respect. It would be easy to poke fun at these people, who have a loop of anagrams running through their heads and can wax poetically on the intrigues of the letter Q. Creadon and his wife/partner, Christine O'Malley (who produced and co-wrote the film), avoid going for ridicule. The filmmakers clearly love these folks, and it is difficult for us not to do the same.
Wordplay also interweaves testimonials from more well-known crossword-puzzle enthusiasts, such as former President Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, filmmaker Ken Burns, Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina and the Indigo Girls. Their remarks are interesting and telling. Stewart is especially funny, admitting that he sometimes does the USA Today crossword if he's stuck in a hotel somewhere ... "but I don't feel good about it."
Mirroring the sort of cleverness it takes to conquer the puzzle in the Sunday Times, Creadon and O'Malley fashion a beautifully executed centerpiece sequence. We follow the process by which renowned crossword constructor Merl Reagle (using a Reagle puzzle in the Times on a Tuesday, we are told, is akin to using Barry Bonds in Little League) creates a puzzle. Later on, we see the finished puzzle being worked by several crossword tournament competitors and celebrity crossword-puzzle enthusiasts. Taken together, the scenes nicely illustrate the ineffable connectedness behind what is, essentially, a solitary avocation.
At first blush, the pursuit of crossword-puzzle solving might seem inherently uncinematic. Wordplay scores for graphics that make it easy to track the progress of a crossword while it's being completed. As Creadon notes on the DVD commentary, the graphics not only enable audiences to follow the tournament action, but they serve as a kind of window into the minds of the crossword aficionados.
Wordplay has its informative moments (in case you've ever wondered, there is a reason you'll never see the word enema in The New York Times' crossword puzzle), but this is no dry treatise on crosswords. A few of the interviewees posit theories about the puzzles' enduring appeal, but perhaps the tersest and most salient notion comes from the usually verbose Bill Clinton: "I don't know ... because they're fun."
Crossword puzzles are fun, and so is Wordplay.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen is of fine quality. Featuring on-the-cuff camerawork typical of documentaries, Wordplay is not about eye-popping visuals. Some images are soft and a few interviews are dimly lighted, but these imperfections are hardly distracting.
An unavoidably talky documentary (albeit a consistently entertaining one), Wordplay's Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is clean, sharp and gets the job done. It also provides a nice showcase for an effectively eclectic soundtrack that includes the Eels, Cake and They Might Be Giants. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
The DVD is packed with extras. A commentary with Patrick Creadon, Will Shortz and crossword-puzzle constructor Merl Reagle is lively and entertaining; you can sense a real camaraderie among the commentators. Creadon, who personally shot all of Wordplay, reveals that the camera shakes a little in the Jon Stewart interview because the director was trying hard to keep from laughing.
The most fascinating supplemental material are five short documentaries under the heading Unforgettable Puzzles from the Pages of The New York Times. Played in succession, the 14-minute, 14-second featurette presents five insanely clever puzzles and the insanely clever crossword constructors who devised them. The aforementioned puzzles are in a mini-booklet included with the DVD, and they can also be printed from the DVD-ROM portion of the disc.
Wordplay Goes to Sundance is a 21-minute featurette chronicling the movie's triumphant showing at the prestigious film festival. This three-part mini-documentary covers Wordplay's screening, subsequent Q & A with Creadon and interviewees, and Will Shortz treating festival-goers to some word games.
Oodles of deleted scenes are included: seven deleted scenes of Will Shortz (7:06); six more deleted scenes (7:33), most of which involves crossword-puzzle notables; and three deleted scenes from Stamford (5:35). Decent stuff.
In addition, an Interview Gallery includes brief clips of interviews the filmmakers conducted with the Indigo Girls, Ken Burns, Jon Stewart, former President Bill Clinton, former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, Mike Mussina and ex-New York Times ombudsman Daniel Okrent. The pieces have a combined running time of 12 minutes, 17 seconds.
" ... And the Winner Is ..." (3:33) presents the final round of the 2006 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. I'm not telling who wins.
Waiting for The New York Times: A Short Film by Patricia Erens is a 12-minute mini-documentary in which customers of a small-town Michigan pharmacy tell why they like Sunday's edition of the Old Gray Lady.
Finally, the DVD includes a music video, "Every Word" by Gary Louris (2:32).
Wordplay is a thoroughly irresistible celebration of The New York Times crossword puzzle. This is charming in the best sense of the word, taking a subject that smacks of NPR-styled preciousness and making it fun and curiously exuberant. Loaded with worthwhile extras and even a mini-book of five memorable Times crosswords, there's nothing puzzling about whether this DVD is worth a look. Check it out.