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Volume 71, Issue 149, Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Life & Arts

'Wordplay' delves into eccentric hobby


There are three things that every college student needs to survive: copious amounts of sleep, large quantities of Dr Pepper and a trusty crossword puzzle. These brain-busting problems really have only one purpose: a distraction from important matters. The geniuses in the new crossword puzzle documentary Worldplay show the world the edgy side of these black-and-white boxes. 

With his soothing voice and knack for giving anyone's brain a workout, Will Shortz, crossword puzzle editor for The New York Times and "Puzzle Master" for National Public Radio's Weekend Edition, enters the screen and wins over the audience with his passion for the Sunday morning ritual of many Americans. 

Shortz, who holds a Ph.D. in enigmatology, the study of puzzles, is one of few people whose life centers on concocting crossword puzzles and dealing with players who are frustrated over vague or tricky clues. The scene where Shortz reads the hate mail from vexed puzzle aficionados is one of the early out-loud laughs that the audience experiences throughout.

Similar to other nerd sport documentaries that have come out recently °™ Spellbound and A League of Ordinary Gentleman °™ the film shows the audience behind-the-scene theatrics and lets viewers enter into the world of the aficionados. 

Wordplay ranges from the complexities of creating a crossword puzzle to interviews of celebrity crossword fans and ends with the nail-biting 28th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. 

Like other indie documentaries, Wordplay is engaging, filled with wit and dry humor. Director Patrick Creadon used a crossword-camera technique to have the camera move like a pair of eyes that pushed the audience to solve a crossword clue while enjoying the film. Creadon also flawlessly constructed scenes that showed tournament players at the apex of their nerdy humor. Right after Ellen Ripstein, the "Susan Lucci of crosswords," describes her former reign as crossword champion as a "nerdy thing, but neat," filmmakers cut to a shot of her amazing baton-twirling skills. 

Creadon showcased an impressive selection of celebrities who are die-hard crossword fans: New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina and the Indigo Girls. The always colorful Jon Stewart, whose hilarious and yet aggressive tackling of a crossword puzzle included a Sharpie pen as his instrument of choice, brings hilarious one-liners throughout the movie, such as, "I am Times puzzle fan. I will, in a hotel, solve a USA Today, but I don't feel good about myself when I do it."

You might be surprised to learn that President Bill Clinton solves crosswords with a pen, but then again, politicians are notorious for making decisions with no ability of turning back and correcting them. 

After the film introduces the major crossword players who can tear apart a puzzle in two-minute sessions, Creadon takes the audience to the 28th Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. The event is the Mecca for puzzlers from across the country where they gather for a weekend of competition and, just for kicks, a nerdy talent show filled with twirling batons and ties with black-and-white boxes. 

Shortz and his fellow crossword cohorts serve as administrators and judges for the nation's top puzzle solvers. 

The tension in the film is brought to the screen well with the various profiles of the top crossword solvers. And with any competition, drama fills the air until the very last match between the top three players. 

Worldplay, which opened in Houston on June 30, is lively throughout and moves along quickly, which is probably why it's easy for the audience to pay attention.

Even though Wordplay is a strong movie within its own right, you can't ignore the fact that this docu-drama could be riding on the coattails of such hits as Spellbound and Akeelah and the Bee. 

Da Vinci' code will still be solved, the X-men will remain standing and you can count on Superman to return, but don't let this obscure gem get away. 


Rated: PG
Starring: Will Shortz, Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, Mike Mussina
IFC Films

Verdict: It won't change your world, but you°Øll respect people who can solve crossword puzzles with pens and Sharpies.

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