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The world of self-satisfying “Wordplay”

It is this critic’s opinion that 99 percent of documentaries released for even limited New York City distribution suck. Documentaries are often easier to release into New York markets because they have few rights issues—usually no product images or music have to be cleared—and often they have a niche audience here that might forgive a documentary’s inconsistencies. Given this conviction, “Wordplay” is the most disappointing movie of the year for me, in that, really, there’s nothing wrong with it.

In fact, “Wordplay” is, and it pains me to say this, almost magically terrific, given the many obstacles it would seem to face. You see, “Wordplay,” directed by Patrick Creadon and produced by his wife Christine O’Malley, is a documentary about crossword puzzles and the people who play them. However, if you are like most of America, you do not do crossword puzzles and you might even think that people who do them are pretty stuck up. However, the film succeeds brilliantly in turning both of these obstacles into strengths, first by allowing you to solve the puzzle along with the player, and secondly by introducing you to such a diverse cast of characters that you’ll probably sympathize with one of them.

To this effect, “Wordplay,” which centers on the American Crossword Puzzle tournament in Stamford, CT, presents us with a plethora of interesting characters, all of whom seem to get a sheer joy out of crossword-puzzling. There is an ambitious frat-boy, a dedicated dad, an openly gay man living happily with his partner, and a baton-twirling editor from New York City. If somehow you are so cold-hearted as to shun even all of those characters as they work their way to try to finish the tournament, the film also has interviews with even more charismatic crossword enthusiasts such as Bill Clinton, Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina, and a particularly enthusiastic Jon Stewart who keeps on exhorting Will Shortz to “bring it on.”

As for Will Shortz himself, editor of the big-deal New York Times Crossword and grand poobah of the American Crossword Puzzle tournament, he comes off like a pretty nice, normal guy. Shortz—the only man on earth to hold a degree in Enigmatology, the study of puzzles—is always smiling and seems to love all the people he’s working with. In fact, he laughs at the hate mail he receives, in one particularly funny scene. But the fact that we can like someone as smart as Shortz so easily is not so much a measure of Shortz’s charisma as it a tribute to the filmmaker’s craft.

Solving crossword puzzles when you get down to it is a pretty smug thing to do. But director Patrick Creadon, in his directorial debut no less, has managed to make an entirely unpretentious film about a pretentious subject. The people we see competing in the American Crossword Puzzle tournaments are über-nerds and we see them at their craziest, wearing funny hats and singing ballads about 50-across. But they believe so genuinely in what they’re doing and wisely that the film does too. It never labels crossword players as uncool or even aspires to any pretense of judging them. The film’s point of view is that these people, these puzzlers, are genuine and thus worthy of praise, a comment that could easily be directed toward the film itself.

The only real thing, in fact, that “Wordplay” could be criticized for is lacking the bite and social commentary that producer Christine O’Malley’s previous film, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in The Room,” had. That said, “Wordplay’s” lack of topicality could be seen as a reflection of our time. With all there is going on in the world to worry about, wouldn’t it just be better to worry about the crossword?

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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