[Screen It]

(2006) (Documentary) (PG)

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Documentary: A look at crossword puzzles, as well as those who construct and manage them, and those who try to solve them, both on amateur and tournament levels.
In the world of crossword puzzles, the ultimate source for the best comes in the New York Times. With puzzle editor Will Shortz and puzzle constructor Merl Reagle explaining their jobs and the nature of puzzling, we see various celebrities -- such as Ken Burns, Bill Clinton, Mike Mussina, The Indigo Girls and Jon Stewart -- discussing their obsession with them. We also meet entrants - including Jon Delfin, Tyler Hinman, Trip Payne, Ellen Ripstein and Al Sanders -- in the 28th Annual Crossword Tournament held in Stamford, Connecticut. As we learn all about the puzzles and the people obsessed with solving them, those participants prepare for and then compete in the big tournament.
OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
When people make comparisons to boring things -- yes, shock of all shocks, even including movies -- it's sometimes said that it would be more interesting to watch paint dry then experience said event. Having never actually tried that I can't attest to the degree of boredom it might create, but it's probably not far from watching someone working on a crossword puzzle without being able to participate with them. Accordingly, a movie about the same doesn't sound much more enticing as I couldn't imagine how one could make the pastime remotely interesting on film.

After all, it's usually a solitary endeavor and a mostly silent one at that, save for those who talk back to their latest puzzle either gloating with having defeated it or cursing the difficulty of the clue and/or answer. While I still don't know about the smarts of trying to make a fictional film about the activity, I've now been pleasantly surprised by the documentary about the same, "Wordplay."

Pitch-perfect for diehard practitioners as well as casual puzzle-solvers (and even those who've never attempted anything more complicated than TV's "Wheel of Fortune"), the film covers various aspects of the activity. There are interviews with the best of the best puzzle solvers (meaning ones who can complete the entire New York Times puzzle -- nearly universally accepted as the crème de la crème of such offerings -- in just two minutes or so).

Then there are segments with more famous participants such as Bill Clinton, filmmaker Ken Burns, baseball player Mike Mussina, musical act The Indigo Girls and comedian Jon Stewart. The latter (who attended college with yours truly majoring in psych way back when, but under a different last name) provides his usual, witty style of faux intense humor, thus generating some decent laughs. Yet, said material isn't really that necessary here save for the potential draw that he and other famous faces might bring the film.

Far more interesting -- and capable of standing on its own -- is the footage involving those who construct and edit the puzzles, such as Will Shortz, the editor of the NY Times material and Merl Reagle who's a regular contributor to that publication. And it's during these segments that all sorts of trivial, yet interesting info (great for party small talk) is offered for the crossword neophytes among us.

For instance, I never knew of the layout rules regarding the design, including that the puzzles (at least in the Times) become more difficult as the days of the week progress. They must also not contain more than a certain percentage of black blocks in relation to the white letter space holders, while said complete works must look identical when viewed upside down.

Of course, completing one that way might possibly slow down some of the speed demons who compete in Shortz's annual tournament. Then again, considering the way in which the likes of Jon Delfin, Tyler Hinman, Trip Payne, Ellen Ripstein, Al Sanders and the others go about completing the puzzles, it might not make much of a difference.

In showcasing the various contestants in the 28th annual tournament (the film covers the 2005 installment), director Patrick Creadon examines the varied sorts who compete to be considered the best. Most, but not all, are "nerdy" to one degree or another (the middle-aged champion also being involved in baton twirling only cements that notion), but they're all clearly interesting souls, if just for their near magical type abilities to complete the puzzles faster than most of us could just get through reading all of the clues, let alone trying to figure out what to write.

In tackling the issue about watching such an activity coming off as humdrum to the paint-drying degree, the filmmaker gives up split-screen action, showing both the participant as well as a graphical representation (puzzle segments, clues and answers) of what they're working on at any given moment. While that might still sound boring to some viewers, I found it anything but that, especially with the ever-shifting focus between them, their more famous but less speedy counterparts, and those who find true satisfaction offering them -- as Shortz puts it -- a stretching of their brains and bringing joy to their lives.

And -- at least in terms of those who compete in the annual tournament -- Creadon manages to show that the otherwise individual endeavor can be a communal experience where everyone obviously wants to finish in first place, but also root for the other "guy" and even point out when they feel a competitor has been shortchanged in terms of earned tally points.

The big winner, of course, is the film itself, as well as anyone who decides to put aside any sort of bias regarding this activity and simply let it all sink in. How do you spell a fun, funny and engaging documentary? Why, it's "W-O-R-D-P-L-A-Y." The film rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed June 12, 2006 / Posted June 23, 2006

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