Wordplay

The documentaries about drying paint can’t be far off now, but in the precious meantime, some congratulations are in order. We’ve successfully arrived at the point in nonfiction moviemaking history where one may pay to sit in the dark for an hour-and-a-half on account of crossword puzzles and those who love them. Some people, no doubt, will want to cheer, “Way to go, civilization!” Others certainly will want to kick those people’s asses.

Beyond that, though, Patrick Creadon’s debut feature shouldn’t be very divisive; it’s just too pleasant. Very early on, Wordplay introduces its most likely central figure, Will Shortz, a man who exudes pleasantness and who affirms at once the pleasantness of his job. Shortz says that when he was a kid he used to joke about majoring in puzzles. Then he did major in puzzles (enigmatology, if you please). Later, he advanced to his unequivocal calling as the editor of The New York Times’ crossword puzzle—which everybody knows is the most cultivated and, correspondingly, the pleasantest of all crossword puzzles. (Piety, if you please.)

Enough scandal has ruffled the Times’ integrity of late that it’s tempting to read this movie—yes, actual reading is required—as a sly bit of ballyhoo straight from the gray lady herself. Wordplay could be a commercial for the crossword of record: daily synaptic massager of choice among the highly verbal, including (but not limited to) the pithy quipster Jon Stewart; the seductive orator Bill Clinton; the lyrically learned Indigo Girls; the straight-shooter New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina; the prolix fellow documentarist Ken Burns; and several more homely, less famous, variously articulate people who are such hardcore puzzlers that they actually compete in yearly crossword competitions.

“I am a Times puzzle fan,” Stewart admits. “I will solve the USA Today, but I don’t feel good about myself.” Times-toady though it is, admittedly, Wordplay without Shortz and co. would be like March of the Penguins without the penguins. With Shortz and co., it’s sort of like Spellbound,sans alertness to issues of race and class. That’s probably OK; even the faintest whiff of political sanctimony is the last thing a pleasant movie about crossword puzzlers needs.

Still, as to whether there even are issues of race and class percolating among crossword puzzlers, Creadon’s movie is just fidgety and self-conscious enough to raise the question inadvertently. It dresses diversion up as discernment but then also pretends that the hauteur so often associated with cultural literacy is really just pitiable highbrow gooniness (which, to be fair, maybe it is). The movie posits a 20-year-old frat boy (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute undergraduate Tyler Hinman, pleasant) as the underdog of competitive crossword puzzling just a little too defensively.

Given Wordplay’s manners and materials, it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that Shortz gets letters addressed to “the smartass crossword puzzle hero,” nor, actually, that reading the mail is his favorite part of the week. Unflappable pleasantness: Dare we fully trust it?

But we have to celebritize somebody. Why not word nerds? The movie does have a secret weapon in one of Shortz’s essential contractors, the sportive puzzle-maker Merl Reagle, whom Creadon allows us to watch in action as he assembles a deliberately tautological puzzle called “Wordplay.” Reagle is a paragon of conquered adversity—be it the inherent spatial confines of the puzzle itself or his employer’s rules of language appropriateness. “’Urine’ would bail me out of a corner a million times a year,” he says during a brief moment of creative mystification. “Same with ‘enema.’” Watching Reagle work is great fun, and his spurts of free-associating linguistic inventiveness support Indigo Girl Amy Ray’s later suggestion of crossword puzzles as an antidote to writer’s block.

Creadon also lets us peek in as his star puzzle fiends have at Reagle’s “Wordplay.” Thanks to a combination of clever camerawork, judicious cutting and digital effects, their efforts come across as impressively interactive.

What the movie most lacks—and let this be a warning to anyone who would explicate the subculture of drying-paint enthusiasts—is sufficient exploration of its subjects’ inner lives. Piety and pleasantness are fine, but don’t we now deserve a proper enigmatology of enigmatologists?