A 10-Letter Word for 'Wordplay'? Delightful

The documentary focuses on Will Shortz, New York Times crossword editor and American Crossword Puzzle Tournament founder.
The documentary focuses on Will Shortz, New York Times crossword editor and American Crossword Puzzle Tournament founder. (Robin Holland - Ifc Films)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 23, 2006

Words, wonderful words! They can open up new worlds and then turn on us with their infuriating inconsistencies and contradictions. They trip off the tongue, trip up everyday logic, harmonize, clash and delight, from the most common three-letter definite article to the haughtiest 25-center.

And there are so many of them!

Words and the people who love them are the stars and subjects of "Wordplay," Patrick Creadon's affectionate documentary about crossword puzzle champions and their passion for English at its most precise, arcane and eccentric. A nominal portrait of puzzle editor Will Shortz and his annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, "Wordplay" takes what could easily be a talky and pedantic exercise and makes it an exhilarating ode to the joy and discovery of the English language, and a spirited defense of intellectual inquiry in an increasingly hostile culture. What's more, Creadon manages to turn a movie about the most solitary of pursuits into a moving portrait of community and connection. As "Wordplay" happily proves, there's a surprising and vast fellowship to be found at the end of a No. 2 pencil.

Creadon, a cameraman who makes a promising directorial debut here, caught up with Shortz in 2005 as the New York Times crossword puzzle editor and regular National Public Radio contributor was preparing for his 28th puzzle tournament that March. Showing Creadon his most nit-picking fan mail ("Frogs hop, sir, but toads waddle"), Shortz makes an engaging, modest subject, fully aware of the fun to be had at his and his fans' expense, but cheerfully unapologetic.

From Shortz's attractive Arts and Crafts home office, Creadon sets out to interview famous crossworders (Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, New York Yankee Mike Mussina, the Indigo Girls), puzzle constructors (a warmly funny man named Merl Reagle emerges as The Man Most Likely to Be Played by Paul Giamatti in the Hollywood version), and a motley crew of competitors preparing for the big showdown in March.

Among those vying are Trip Payne, the title's defender; college student Tyler Hinman, who wants to be the youngest crossword champ ever; and Al Sanders, the new Ellen Ripstein of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, Ellen Ripstein being the former Susan Lucci of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

Just when you think the subjects of "Wordplay" present ideal fodder for the next Christopher Guest mockumentary, Creadon goes deeper to show them not as oddballs but as people for whom puzzling is as much about reaching out as knowing the answer -- it becomes endearingly clear that the blanks they're filling aren't just on the page.

When the competition finally reaches the finals, "Wordplay" loses a bit of steam; filmgoers expecting an edge-of-the-seat wrap-up on a par with the movies "Spellbound" and "Akeelah and the Bee" may be disappointed.

The stakes here simply aren't that high, especially with such a demographically homogeneous group. But if the competition itself is an anticlimax, the film as a whole reflects the unity and balance of a well constructed puzzle, right down to the ingenious across-and-down visual structure that Creadon and editor Douglas Blush have devised as the film's visual conceit, which allows viewers to actually play along rather than just watch others have all the fun.

Indeed, for many viewers "Wordplay" will be at its most exciting when the film's celebrity commentators whip out their pens (!) to solve the puzzle Reagle has constructed especially for the film.

That's when the sheer, infectious fun of puzzling really comes to life on screen and when, at least for a moment, bookworms, eggheads, know-it-alls and Poindexters aren't nerds. They're stars.

Wordplay (84 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for some profanity and brief, mild references to bodily functions.

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