Punsters, linguists and crossword puzzle fanatics everywhere couldn’t ask for a more bracing tribute than helmer Patrick Creadon’s buoyant and exhilaratingly brainy docu “Wordplay.” Initially conceived as a profile of peerless puzzlemaker Will Shortz, the pic unveils a “Spellbound”-style gallery of competitive crossword pros, ultimately becoming a moving and eloquent valentine to the English language. IFC Films should have no trouble positioning this irresistible item as an arthouse draw with serious crossover potential.
Docu also happens to be an exceedingly warm piece of publicity for the New York Times, where Shortz has edited the daily crossword puzzle for 12 years. Celebrity subjects — including Bill Clinton, the Indigo Girls, filmmaker Ken Burns and Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina — all swear by the Times puzzle as the gold standard (Jon Stewart even admits that he’ll do the USA Today crossword, “but I won’t feel good about myself”).
While the resulting work is unmistakably East Coast-centric, right down to its finale at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn., it’s marred by neither condescension nor cultural snobbery. Creadon, who also serves as d.p., is intoxicated by the brilliance of those who construct puzzles and those who solve them, and he regards his subjects with a clear eye for both their razor-sharp wits and their endearing eccentricities.
Pic kicks off with a concise and frequently hilarious portrait of Shortz, a lifelong puzzleholic who went so far as to create his own major, “enigmatology,” at Indiana U. Occupying almost as much screentime is his colleague Merl Reagle, who delivers an engrossing primer on the basic rules, goals and techniques of constructing a crossword puzzle.
Even more intriguing are the speedy and compulsive puzzle addicts who take the stage one by one — past champ Ellen Ripstein; perennial runner-up Al Sanders; Trip Payne, who waxes passionately about the letter “Q”; and frat boy prodigy Tyler Hinman.
Showdown at the March 2005 tournament inevitably falls short of the nail-biting suspense of “Spellbound,” as there’s nothing inherently thrilling about the sight of hundreds of people poring over crossword puzzles. Once the gang is whittled down to the final three, however, docu comes through with an intellectually and emotionally wrenching climax that Hollywood couldn’t have scripted better.
If “Wordplay” is largely a triumph of superior content over merely serviceable form, Brian Oakes’ titling and graphics design nevertheless devises ingenious visual strategies to illustrate the process of puzzle-solving, creating a play-along interactivity that audiences will find stimulating, if not intimidating.