Release Date:  June 16, 2006 (limited), June 23, 2006 (select cities)
Rating:  Not Rated
Genre:  Documentary
Run Time:  94 min.
Director:  Patrick Creadon
Actors:  Will Shortz, Merl Reagle, Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, Indigo Girls, Mike Mussina, Daniel Okrent, Ken Burns, Bob Dole

"Wordplay," the new film documenting New York Times crossword puzzle-meister Will Shortz and the annual crossword competition he founded, provides object lessons in fair play, vocational calling and, well, oddness. For it takes a certain type of person to knock out a Times crossword in two minutes and two seconds.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, it makes me envious, watching crossword aficionados ace puzzle after puzzle, while I struggle with the two- and three-letter clues in my weekly TV guide crossword.

But this review isn’t about me. It’s about Them, the Other, those who create the most puzzled-over crosswords in the country, and those who know the clues, the tricks of the trade, the ins and outs, or, more appropriately, the ups and downs of all those “Across” and “Down” numbered boxes.

They’re not like you or me. They’re smarter. They’re masters of the math and music domains, according to one diehard puzzler. Sometimes they’re famous comedians (Jon Stewart), politicians (Bill Clinton and Bob Dole) or professional baseball players (Mike Mussina).

Among the film’s most powerful messages is that our greatest passion can be a vocational calling, even if poverty is the result. “Anyone doing what they like … I have a great deal of respect for that,” says one crossword expert. “It’s a gift,” he says of his abilities, “but one I worked for. I practiced and got good at it.”

Former President Bill Clinton also takes up the nature-versus-nurture debate. “Nature made Einstein what he was, but nurture can make you capable of doing more than you think,” he says.

Those sentiments add a hopeful dimension for those looking to be inspired, but the film works fine as a study of the various personalities, and personality types, who create and conquer crossword puzzles.

The film’s driving force is Will Shortz, whose unusual college degree in “Enigmatology” has propelled him to the top of the puzzle-making world: editorship of the New York Times crossword, which he assumed in 1993, several years after launching the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament – an annual gathering for crossword-obsessives.

Shortz, who sold his first puzzle at age 14, says he was “willing to live in poverty” to pursue his passion for puzzle-making, but his intentions are inspirational: “The best thing is to stretch people’s brains, bring joy to their lives,” he says.

By contrast, the first famous puzzle aficionado we meet in the film, comedian Jon Stewart, relays his own self-effacing sense of professional worthiness: “I tell dumb jokes for money,” he says. Stewart plays to the camera, with exaggerated gestures and exclamations, providing amusing commentary as a stand-in for those of us who long to outsmart Shortz, et al.

That “et al” includes Merl Reagle, one of several puzzle-makers who contribute clues and entire puzzles to Shortz. His ability to re-form letter combinations is a gift that has apparently served him well in his successful career as a puzzler (“If you moved the first ‘D’ in ‘Dunkin’ Donuts’ to the end of the first word, you’d have ‘Unkind Donuts,’” Reagle informs us. Or play with the “s” and “h” in “Noah’s Ark,” and you might end up with “Noah: Shark!”)

The other featured crossword fanatics include an editor who’s a bit too self-deprecating, calling himself an “obsessive creep” who uses his watch to record his completion time for each day’s puzzle as a way to check his own level of “mental deterioration.” Others are oblivious to their condescension. A former competition champion acknowledges that her crossword expertise may be due to nothing more than the accumulation of “useless knowledge,” but in the next breath recounts how she once challenged an ex-boyfriend who questioned her passion for crosswords, asking him, “What are you the best in the country at?”

Most of the contestants appear to be altruistic, although one contestant’s roommate says he “wouldn’t do [the competition] if he couldn’t win. It’s all about winning.” The film culminates with a pressure-cooker championship, including an act of unselfish unanimity after a scoring mistake is discovered.

"Wordplay," like the fictional "Akeelah and the Bee" from earlier this year, portrays the development of particular talents through practice and diligence. Although the personalities on display are not all entirely admirable, the film’s focus on dedication, joy and community is inspirational. It’s more fun than most summer blockbusters and a respite from the other nonfiction films ("An Inconvenient Truth", "The Road to Guantanamo") currently in release.

AUDIENCE:  10 and up

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity:  Shortz reads mail that includes profanities; a few scatological terms are mentioned as inappropriate for the Times puzzle; “kick butt.”
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  A college-aged puzzle fan has beer-themed magnets on his refrigerator.
  • Sex/Nudity:  None, but two male homosexuals describe each other affectionately and kiss briefly.
  • Violence:  None.
  • Politics:  None that are applicable to the subject matter, but it’s notable that nearly all of the celebrities interviewed are known to lean to the Left. Don’t Conservatives like crossword puzzles, too?