Spellbound‘s legacy is documentaries like Wordplay, a cute, quirky but predominately superficial portrait of brainy wordsmiths that alternates between sketches of its crossword puzzle-loving protagonists and the high drama of a championship competition. The film’s title addendum “Featuring Will Shortz” will likely be the main draw for most crossword enthusiasts, as Shortz—NPR’s “Puzzle Master” and the renowned editor of The New York Times’ “gold standard” puzzles—is the closest thing the field has to a bona fide celebrity, though most of the star wattage of Patrick Creadon’s affable directorial debut comes from interviews with notable fans such as Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, Bill Clinton, and New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina. It’s Clinton who most lucidly explains why the puzzles prove so irresistibly appealing, linking his process for completing them (initially working on the clues he knows, and then slowly building off that knowledge to figure out the rest) to his presidential problem-solving techniques, yet Wordplay generally avoids any penetrating explanations as to why its most talented subjects like crosswords, how their minds process them with such lightening speed, and how this newspaper-provided pastime relates to the rest of their lives. Instead, we’re treated to quick glimpses of Shortz reading hate mail, Merl Reagle constructing a semi-difficult puzzle, and a group of linguistically gifted individuals who all aspire to win the 28th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, CT, a timed contest that bestows aficionados with minor glory while also providing them with a sense of community. Creadon does his best to enliven the act of watching smart folks fill in blank grid spaces by employing newspaper-ish graphics and transitional wipes that give his frame a boxy, crosswordy visual arrangement. But between its skin-deep portrayals of the tournament’s main contestants and its preference for funny anecdotes (such as one regarding the 1996 Election Day puzzle) over insightful inquiry, this relatively genial doc proves considerably less complex and engrossing than an average Times brainteaser.
- IFC Films
- 84 min
- Patrick Creadon
- Patrick Creadon, Christine O'Malley
- Will Shortz, Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Ken Burns, Jon Stewart, Mike Mussina, Indigo Girls, Merl Reagle, Daniel Okrent, Tyler Hinman, Al Sanders, Trip Payne, Jon Delfin, Ellen Ripstein
- Slant is reaching more readers than ever before, but advertising revenue across the Internet is falling fast, hitting independently owned and operated publications like ours the hardest. We’ve watched many of our fellow media sites fall by the way side in recent years, but we’re determined to stick around.
We’ve never asked our readers for financial support before, and we’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees. If you like what we do, however, please consider becoming a Slant patron.
You can also make a one-time donation via PayPal: