(PG) Two and a Half Stars
Documentary films have enjoyed a tremendous popularity and success in recent years, and, as a result, now often find themselves competing for box office dollars with big budget studio releases. This is both a blessing and a curse for documentaries — a blessing because they are certainly being seen by larger audiences and earning a little money to boot; it’s a curse, however, when an audience member recognizes he or she has just paid nearly 10 bucks to watch what can best be described as a really long 60 Minutes segment
Wordplay is about crossword puzzles. More specifically, it is about the men and women who edit, write and solve the New York Times crosswords. Will Shortz, the Times crossword guru and “puzzle guy” on NPR, serves as the initial protagonist for the film. And there is something compelling about how the crossword puzzle itself came to be such an enduring aspect of American culture, and how the New York Times has served as the standard for this entire genre of entertainment.
Director Patrick Creadon tries to maintain cinematic interest with the presence of celebrity crossword puzzle solvers. Jon Stewart presents his mock-usual take on crosswords, and does provide the film’s few intentional moments of humor. Filmmaker Ken Burns waxes profound and/or profoundly ridiculous while hunched over his folded paper, New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina and the Indigo Girls, and Bill Clinton are also invited to talk about their love for the puzzle.
The stars of Wordplay, however, are the men and women devoted enough to solving the New York Times crossword to show up for the annual American Crossword Tournament. The documentary eventually focuses exclusively on the competition, and the question becomes not who will win but whether it’s possible to make a room full of 300 people silently filling out little boxes worth the price of admission.
The answer, ultimately, is no. To say the film isn’t interesting or entertaining would be unfair. It is, in fact, both. But at nearly one and a half hours, it is clear why the spectator aspect of watching others fill those empty boxes with letters of words inspired by obtuse clues has never really caught on in sports or cinema. It is also clear why some stories are best left for a fraction of 60 Minutes.