Set around the 28th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament held in March each year at the Stamford Marriott, Connecticut, which attracts the top crossword competitors from around the US, and Will Shortz, crossword editor of The New York Times and a National Public Radio host, who has organized the tournament from its inception. The film tells the history of the NY Times crossword puzzle, its ongoing attraction for millions of readers - and specially for a few chosen guests like Bill Clinton and comedian Jon Stewart - delving into the logistics and semantics, the challenges and the rituals of crossword puzzles.
Review by Louise Keller:
'Quiet please - minds at work' says the sign on the door. Intriguing, surprising and stimulating, Wordplay is much more than a documentary about a crossword tournament. Anyone who is remotely interested in the English language will be fascinated. People watchers will also get their fix. And those who have a competitive streak will get intricately involved. If you enjoyed Spellbound or Mad Hot Ballroom, you will instantly be drawn to this compelling film that champions language and communication.
Wordplay canvasses the creation of the humble crossword. We meet Will Shortz, an ultra-likeable intelligent chap, unique in that he has a degree in Enigmatology. Don't worry if you have never heard of it; in order to pursue his passion, Shortz designed his own University major. When he began editing the New York Times crossword page, he came into his own, and in 1978, launched the first puzzle competition. Watching Shortz talk about words, puzzles and the competition is stimulating in itself; his tell tale smile is a constant reminder that he is like a kid in a candy shop.
There are some well known puzzlers, like comedian Jon Stewart ('the Errol Flynn of crosswords') and Bill Clinton who write in pen and complete the task in record time. But we also meet a group of champion puzzlers competing against each other at the tournament finals. This is serious business, and that final challenge when the top three contenders show their skills on white boards in front of an audience, the tension is palpable. Musicians and IT specialists have the most natural aptitude, we are told, as we discover there is more than meets the eye in this film about words and people. I couldn't wait for the morning paper, so I could hone my skills with a different mindset.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Wordplay won't make you weep or roar laughing, but it's a surprisingly fascinating film about something as quotidian as the New York Times crossword puzzle and its sometimes obsessed followers. We learn about the creation of the crossword puzzle (and its origins) and how the NYT's crossword has become the world standard. In passing, I should note that Australian crossword fiends will possibly divide on the film, since the NYT crossword is neither cryptic, nor strictly speaking 'quick' in its style, but a strange hybrid.
It's champion and guardian is Will Shortz, who launched the championships soon after becoming perhaps the first university student who graduated from a course he created himself - enigmatology. We learn that like Shortz, there are many others who are addicted to solving puzzles, and crosswords are just one. I'd have liked to get to know Shortz a bit more on a personal level, but the filmmakers were focusing on the world of wordplay and specifically on the championship (a la Spellbound). It's held over a weekend, building to a crescendo on Sunday that tests the nerves of all involved.
There seems to be no scientific reason for some people to be more adept at solving puzzles, although the film refers to some research which suggests that musicians and the mathematically gifted do them best, able to quickly understand the riddles. I have heard stranger things, and I do recall noting that in Los Alamos, once the world's greatest concentration of brainpower, the physicists were also amateur musicians. This is linkage that deserves study, and Wordplay is a fun way of tripping on this info. It's also entertaining in its gentle probing into the idiosyncratic 'average' American.
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CAST: Documentary featuring Will Shortz, Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, Mike Mussina and others
PRODUCER: Christine O'Malley
DIRECTOR: Patrick Creadon
SCRIPT: Patrick Creadon, Christine O'Malley
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Patrick Creadon
EDITOR: Douglas Blush
MUSIC: Vic Fleming, Peter Golub
RUNNING TIME: 85 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 26, 2006