It may not be an “iconic manifestation of civilization,” as documentarian Ken Burns proclaims, but The New York Times crossword puzzle is undoubtedly an institution. Printed every day for the past 64 years, in weekly cycles of increasing difficulty, the puzzle draws politicians, working stiffs, comedians, musicians, coders, and homemakers across the country: anybody who, to paraphrase one champion puzzler, sees blank spaces and wants to fill them in. In Wordplay, first-time feature director Patrick Creadon seeks to unpack the phenomenon, bringing his story to a climax at the 28th Annual Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut, where the nation’s best puzzlers duke it out for … four thousand bucks. And does anybody care?
Maybe. Spellbound, 2003’s blazing examination of the National Spelling Bee, used that competition to zero in on issues of race, class, adolescence, immigration, and parenting in America. In 2004, Word Wars — a sharp and witty film languishing in grievous obscurity — did the same thing with Scrabble (minus the tweens). Wordplay could have taken the same tack, and at times it attempts to. But mostly it’s just a sweet and lightly funny piece of highbrow piffle, as enjoyable as it is forgettable. There’s no harm done, but there’s not much else either.
Here’s a typical quote from Will Shortz, puzzle editor of the Times and puzzle master at NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday: “I’m blessed to work for the two greatest news organizations in the country.” Lovely? Sure. Dramatic? No. Good-natured and amiable, Shortz is a man in love with his job, one of those people who apparently issued from the womb with a passion and made that passion his career. (In college, he created a major called “enigmatology.”) You can’t wish Shortz anything but well, and yet … a four-letter word for “boring” comes to mind.
Far more lively than Shortz are the solvers and contestants, earnest regular folk with an amusingly myopic commitment to words and letters. “I’ve always been intrigued by the letter Q,” says Trip Payne, one of the nation’s top solvers. “And some letters are just boring. N is a boring letter.” Tyler Hinman, a twenty-year-old who solves next to a giant beer banner in his frat house, confesses that his emotional involvement occasionally departs from sanity. “I tend to get a little … I guess ‘psychotic’ is the word.” In this way, Creadon dips his toe in the seemingly placid pools of the contestants’ personalities and personal lives, but never deep enough. For instance: Payne had to leave New York and move to Florida because his life had become unhealthily dominated by puzzle solving. Huh? Now there‘s a story worth pursuing.
Creadon’s strengths lie in breadth rather than depth — and in a cunning power to convince major celebrities to appear in his movie. Bill Clinton muses on the nature of learning, and a manic Jon Stewart goofs amiably for the camera. Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina’s modesty is humbling — as is the fact that many members of the team tend to take part in the puzzle — and Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers do their folksy earth-girl thing. But save for Stewart’s shenanigans, there’s just not much energy here. Bill Clinton is practically soporific (“Nearly anybody can learn nearly anything they need to know”), except for how heartwarming it is to hear that he worked the puzzle nearly every day in office. (Remember what it was like to have a president who could read?)
Creadon has engineered one unique conceit that works beautifully. First, he follows puzzle constructor Merl Reagle, a frank and funny man who looks like Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons, as he creates a new crossword. (Reagle on the loss of verboten words: “‘Urine’ would bail me out of a corner a million times a year. Same with ‘enema.'”) The puzzle is titled “Wordplay” and includes clever permutations of both halves of the compound. Shortz accepts the puzzle for a Tuesday, and when it’s published, Creadon films each celebrity as he or she wrangles with it.
Eminently mild-mannered, Wordplay does build to a climax, but even the mild fervor at the national competition is mediated by the civility of its participants. After the first day of competition, two of the three front-runners — all supposedly tied for first — point out an error in scoring that favors the third. Of course, the nobility of the players isn’t an insurmountable conflict-killer, though you can’t help but wish that — as in Word Wars — at least one of them would crack.