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The Independent Critic

Will Shortz, William Clinton, Jon Stewart, Ken Burns
Patrick Creadon
Patrick Creadon, Christine O'Malley
94 Mins.
Weinstein Co.
 "Wordplay" Review 
What's an eight-letter word for Sundance darling documentary based upon the career of New York Times Crozzword Puzzle editor Will Shortz and the 28th Annual American Crossword Puzzle Championship?

"Wordplay," of course.

Unfortunately, few of the answers in a typical New York Times Crossword Puzzle would ever be this simple, and this basic fact is part of the joy in watching "Wordplay," a film that looks at Shortz, the history of crossword puzzles, those who construct the puzzles and, finally, the incredibly intelligent and oddly endearing community of crossword puzzle fanatics that show up year after year to compete, commune and, hopefully, grab their 15 minutes of fame in the crossword spotlight.

Director Patrick Creadon wisely chooses his crossword puzzle fanatics, ranging from celebrities such as former President Bill Clinton, Late Show host Jon Stewart, indie rockers Indigo Girls, documentary film-maker Ken Burns and Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina to attractive everyday folks such as Ellen, a former 50ish former champion, and Tyler, a 20-year-old college student with an obvious gift for crosswords that baffles those twice his age.

The film simply presents its material, including the use of puzzle graphics that allow the audience to follow along as puzzles are completed by the various individuals.

"Wordplay" offers a seemingly endless supply of fun facts, beginning with Shortz's college days at Indiana University, a school that allows its accepted students to develop their own college major and curriculum. Long obsessed with puzzles, Shortz completed his degree in enigmatology (the study of puzzles).

"Wordplay" largely works because Creadon treats each of his subjects with great dignity and with an obvious sense of respect. These are intelligent, often incredibly quirky individuals...yet it never feels okay to laugh at them or even to laugh "with" them. They live lives that many could not understand, yet "Wordplay" paints these lives in such a way that when the film finally centers on the actual championship it becomes challenging to root for just one of these characters. Each of the individuals has been presented with such balance that the audience both cheers for the victor and sympathizes with those who lose.

This particularly scenario is further validated when a scoring mistake involving the top three is noted almost immediately before the final round. In a world that is often obsessed only with winning, it is a powerful testimony to the "community" of crossword puzzle competitors that it is the top contending competitors who point out the mistake. It is a simple, yet incredibly touching scene. Moreso, because it is true.

As wonderful a documentary as "Wordplay" is, it often plays like a Tuesday crossword rather than the Saturday puzzle it should be. While the celebrity appearances are effective (especially Jon Stewart and Bill Clinton), Creadon too often settles for the surface story rather than looking deeper within the individuals he follows throughout the film. He hints at the wondrous community of individuals that gathers faithfully each year, yet he never fully explores why they do so. Likewise, Creadon firmly establishes that these are incredibly intelligent individuals whose ability to think broadly works to their advantage. Yet, again, he never fully explores what makes them tick. Even when we are given glimpses of their private lives, it feels more like we are peering inside rather than truly seeking an understanding.

Because Creadon works so hard to make these individuals balanced and interesting, their surface treatment ends up making their stories feel incomplete and a tad dissatisfying.

"Wordplay" features basic yet effective production design, a nice companion soundtrack and is well-paced. Creadon wisely keeps the action moving, and what could be an incredibly dry, slow subject remains constantly interesting.

The final result ends up feeling much like that for one particular competitor in the final round. "Wordplay" is often brilliant yet ends up falling just a couple letters short of truly being a championship film.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic