Whether or not you enjoy word puzzles, it's hard to resist Wordplay, an eager-to-please documentary about crosswords and the people behind them. Like Spellbound, the film revels in its geekiness, and while its subject isn't as instantly gratifying, it does build up both charm and a certain amount of suspense.
The 28th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held in a Marriott in Stamford, Connecticut, provides a framework of sorts for the film, but most of the opening is devoted to Will Shortz, for the past 13 years the puzzle editor at The New York Times and more recently a fixture on National Public Radio. Shortz's progress from college unknown to the national dean of crossword puzzles is a surprisingly engrossing tale, in part because of his easygoing, self-deprecating humor.
We also meet puzzle constructors like Merl Reagle, who notes while driving down a street how easy it is to change a doughnut franchise from "Dunkin'" to "unkind," or "Noah's Ark" to "No! A shark!" Reagle builds from scratch an intricately punning crossword that is solved in turn by a half-dozen or so public figures.
These celebrities, who range from former President Bill Clinton to The Indigo Girls to Yankees ace Mike Mussina, will be the draw for many viewers, and it's gratifying to see how devoted and articulate they are. Clinton takes special delight in a remarkable election-day crossword in which either "Clinton" or "Bob Dole" could have been the correct answer for one clue.
Director Patrick Creadon also focuses on a handful of tournament stars, including the disarming Ellen Ripstein, seen baton-twirling in Central Park, and the talented pianist Jon Delfin, a seven-time tournament champion. Creadon occasionally uses split screens to approximate the process of solving a puzzle, but filling in boxes will never be as exciting as other contests. That said, the tournament itself, in which hundreds of competitors race to complete seven puzzles, is more tense than you'd expect. The final, a battle between rookie Tyler Hinman and two old-timers, actually gets a play-by-play commentary from Reagle and NPR's Neal Conan.
Even if you don't decorate your walls with oversized crosswords, as some participants here do, Wordplay shows just how rewarding puzzles can be. It also packs in higher IQs and quicker wits than any other movie you're likely to encounter this summer.