I grew up in a Sunday Times crossword puzzle home, my wife and I tackle it more weeks than not, and I have matured, between Sundays, into a kill-the-Thursday- puzzle-50-percent -of-the-time guy. (I’m not talking finish times with you.) But even I am doubtful that crossword solving can make a movie—or, at least, a movie that doesn’t simper up to the New York Times‘ keister crack and give it a big smooch. Patrick Creadon’s doc Wordplay is whipped frosting on the subject, dallying with celebrities (Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, Mike Mussina) who like their numbered boxes, but mostly fellating editor Will Shortz and his cronies, who are fully capable of imparting (too few) fascinating pearls of historical trivia and also of waxing windily about the central role that crosswords play in their lives.
Bob Dole gets off the funniest one-liner, but that’s not quite a surprise once the film veers toward the 28th Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and its parade of vocab geeks. What’s endearing here—that ordinary, unattractive people are being treated as celebrities due exclusively to brain power—fades to gray soon enough, and it’s easy to get fed up with this mob’s self-congratulatory myopia. Creadon cutes things up tiresomely, but follows the cerebral action nicely via a digitally partitioned screen—clue, space, and contestant—making this a cinch for DVD rewinds. Of course, like-minded obsessives are presold, but Wordplay has no subject, finally, besides the puzzle you could be solving instead. There is no small amount of flattering the choir going on. Another doc sharing some of its cultural DNA, the spelling-bee melodrama Spellbound, had children, families, social conventions—Creadon’s film has only words and people with a little time to waste.