Like a siren’s song, the New York Times crossword puzzle sweetly calls to millions of readers every day. These select few are looking for a challenge; a reason to take the brain out for the 30 minute daily walk, and they are slavish to the idiosyncrasies of the puzzle and the routine involved in completing them.
If you’ve seen the 2003 spelling bee documentary “Spellbound,” then you’ve seen “Wordplay.” The subject matter has been heightened to a more adult level of wordsmanship (at least with some of the participants), but the voyage is the same: the film follows several puzzle junkies as they prepare to do battle at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, presided over by the Times crossword editor, Will Shortz. The audience gets a snapshot of their lives, their passions for puzzles, and their thirst for victory.
Now you may be thinking that crossword puzzles would a pretty thin idea to hang 80 minutes of movie on…and you’d be right. Director Patrick Creadon is sticking to a very familiar artistic check list with his documentary, leaving “Wordplay” without many surprises or invention. He’s assembled an expected gang of misfits to follow, emphasized their quirks and camera awkwardness to give them a sliver of character beyond their yearning for mental glory, and devoted the entire second half of the film to the tournament. There’s just not much meat on these bones.
The difference between “Spellbound” and “Wordplay” is found in the participants’ annoying lack of humility. I have no problem with a joyous celebration of mental dexterity or any pass at rewarding intelligence, but the characters in “Wordplay” have an irritating passive-aggressive arrogance about them as they’re asked to define their value in the puzzle world. It’s hard to watch that for any length of time, and it wounds Creadon’s calculated desire to have his audience fall in love with these rascals.
As the heat of competition escalates, there is a thrill in witnessing the contestants throw hissy fits when they overlook important words or pretend to enjoy each other’s company when the cameras are around, but that is far from what Creadon is trying to achieve; he’s looking for cuddly and quirky, but what he captures is off-putting, cutesy, ego-centric spotlight dancing.
Fascinating, but hardly given enough room to blossom, is watching the creation of a crossword puzzle by noted block wizard, Merl Reagle. Here the curtain is pulled back to demonstrate just how one of these complicated devils comes about. Starting with basic ideas for answers and sputtering off into a hundred different directions from there, the design moments of the film far outshine the competition sequences or the myriad of cameos (Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, and the Indigo Girls appear) that are here to add some twinkle to a very dry picture.
“Wordplay” will have some crust of appeal to fans of puzzles, and to other crosswords addicts who hope to sniff out the competition. I was searching for a richer understanding of the crossword appeal outside of childish cerebral one-upmanship; what I found here was a very standard issue documentary that didn’t have much to say about a subculture that seems boundless in its complexity.Rating: C