The Movie Binge

Review: Wordplay

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I've noticed a tendency on the part of movie reviewers (indeed, professional reviewers of any stripe) to get a wee bit breathless any time they're presented with something that is both enjoyable and out of the ordinary. This is perfectly understandable, as they're bombarded every day with films that might meet one of those criteria (or neither, lord knows), but very rarely do they have the pleasure of encountering one that embodies both. Wordplay certainly qualifies, but critics like Peter Travers do, perhaps, overstate matters when they claim it's packed with "palm-sweating suspense." There's drama, certainly, but at the end of the day, this is still a movie about the life of the mind, and the brain is not known for its proclivity for car chases and exploding oil tankers, y'know? (Well, my brain perhaps, but that's in a totally different hemisphere from the puzzlin' part.)

Which is not to knock Wordplay. It's a sweet, funny, and very charming documentary overall, examining the lives of some very, very, very nerdy people (and I should know from nerds) as they don their crossword ties and suit jackets (no, really) and prepare for the 28th Annual Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held in the Marriott in Stamford, CT. The men and women profiled in the film span a reasonable range of demographics, and they're all intriguing folks, but unfortunately there is a slightly repetitive sense of commonality about them: it's a particular personality type that's drawn to puzzles, and it's an even more particular personality type that is both drawn to puzzles and good at solving them. But it's nonetheless quite pleasant to watch them gather and rejoice in each other's nerdiness, and even if the thought of solving the Monday crossword makes you break out into hives, you'll be able to both respect their skills and sympathize with their joy at participating in a community that shares their passions. That brief feeling of repetitiousness aside, the film is generally quite nimble in its pacing and visual style, including some rather original techniques for putting the dense visual code of crosswords onto the screen in a scannable, comprehensible fashion.

The only other two flaws in the film are reasonably minor: One is that, no matter how true the sentiment might be, the film's repeated (and I do mean repeated) references to the New York Times as "the greatest newspaper in the world" or "the most important cultural institution in existence" can be a bit obnoxious -- at moments like that, the film feels like it was created to play on flatscreen TVs in the Times lobby while you wait to speak with a customer service rep about your subscription. The other weak point is, sadly, Will Shortz: he's a very effective sort of Master of Ceremonies for the film, and it's fascinating to see a few quick glimpses of his professional process as an editor, but we get no sense of him as a puzzler or a personality in quite the same way that we're allowed into the heads of the film's civilian subjects. It's respectable as a personal decision, perhaps, but something about his weirdly rakish grin (in one of his appearances, Jon Stewart dubs Shortz "the Errol Flynn of puzzling") seems to demand a closer inspection.

But there are worse ways to spend an hour and a half staring at a wall this summer (God knows I saw one of them a few days after this screening), and you're bound to laugh and, yes, feel a tingle of suspense once the real competition kicks in. And God help me, it actually has made me want to try my hand at a crossword for the first time in years. Stop me before I buy a crossword tie.

(And for further reading: This Times Q&A with Will Shortz.)