Crossword puzzle creating might not seem all that exciting, and quite frankly, it’s not, unless you’re one of those brianiacs who knows every synonym for quixotic or, like Merl Reagle, one of the professional crossword constructors featured in the film, is able to do with blinding speed, can come up with new words or phrases just by switching around one or two letters from the name of a company (“If you move the D to the end,” Merl tells the camera as he points out a Dunkin Donuts sign, “you get Unkind Donuts.”). And it’s quite likely a documentary about crosswords will find a smaller audience than, say, a documentary about penguins, or even one about the most vulgar joke ever created. The mere thought of the New York Times Sunday Crossword puzzle scares the bejesus out of me. Yet, through its whimsical, low-key, folksy charm, “Wordplay” won me over so much that, while eating lunch shortly after the press screening I attended, I was emboldened enough to attempt my first crossword puzzle in months. So it was a Tuesday puzzle (Monday puzzles, we are told, are the easiest of the week, with each successive day’s puzzles a bit harder, until Sunday’s more expertly puzzles are published, and the cycle starts over again) and it was the Los Angeles Times instead of the New York Times, and after an hour, I threw down my pencil with less than half the puzzle solved, but it was fun to be reminded of how much excitement and personal satisfaction can be gained by getting through a particularly difficult crossword clue.
While a bit too much time is spent attempting to create some drama in the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, by getting to know many of those who will be participating, the film has its best payoff while the likes of Ken Burns, President Bill Clinton, John Stewart and the Indigo Girls all try to solve the same puzzle we earlier saw Merl Reagle create, one specifically designed around the title of the film and published (as a Monday puzzle, much to the feigned consternation of Reagle, who envisioned the puzzle as a Tuesday) in the New York Times for all to enjoy.
Watching some of the crossword puzzlers might scare a portion of the audience, wondering what makes someone so compulsive about needing to solve a regular daily puzzle in less than sixty seconds, and keeps others puzzled (pun only slightly intended) about why they went to see a film about such a topic. However, it is nice to see a film that can exercise your brain and tickle your funny bone, often at the same time. “Wordplay” is far from an unspoiled cinematic experience, but those who enjoy a good brainteaser every once in a while should find much merriment.
Make sure to check out FilmJerk.com’s exclusive “Wordplay” crossword puzzle, where you can also enter to win one of ten “Wordplay” companion books.