What Are Words For?

Washington City Paper | June 26, 2006
Headlong handheld camera, pounding rock songs, macho swagger, full-tilt competition—It’s hard to imagine that The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift has anything on Wordplay, director Patrick Creadon’s hyperactive look at the cutthroat world of crossword-puzzle tourneys. Indeed, the film is so frenzied that it takes a while to comprehend that just about everyone in it is completely misguided.

The movie is clearly modeled on Spellbound, the charming 2003 documentary that unleashed a plague of spelling-bee flicks. Creadon follows a group of veteran competitors as they prepare for, arrive at, and finally contend in the Olympics of crosswording, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn. (sort of the New York–area equivalent of Tysons Corner—but with more old money). Creadon doesn’t quite trust these nerds to hold our attention, however, so he introduces two other threads: the making of New York Times crossword puzzles, which is fairly interesting, and the crossword-related reflections of a handful of notables, which are kind of a drag.

Creadon cuts frantically between the contestants, the celebs, and the likes of crossword editor Will Shortz, former Times public editor (aka ombudsman) Daniel Okrent, and puzzle constructor Merl Reagle, whose skills are impressive, even if his dictates aren’t always accurate. (You can make legit English words that begin with a consonant followed by the letter “w.”) If the doc is rather charitable toward the Times, which Okrent grandly identifies as “the most important news medium in the world,” it’s even more indulgent of such puzzle-happy luminaries as Bill Clinton, Ken Burns, Mike Mussina, and the members of Indigo Girls. Most self-impressed and overemphatic is current-affairs comic (and quirky-documentary regular) Jon Stewart, whose hectoring interludes completely banished my shame at never having watched The Daily Show.

None of these snippets lasts long enough to be fatally irksome, and they’re juiced by quick edits, neat segues, and a steady parade of modern-rock choruses. Things don’t really go wrong until the tournament begins and the previously introduced contestants battle each other in timed rounds. The final match pits three guys—women are in short supply—against each other as Creadon uses split screens to capture every facet of the suspenseful showdown. Who will finish first, the 20-year-old cyberpunk, the youngish gay nerd, or the middle-aged straight nerd?

At this point, Wordplay might win over a few F&F fans but will likely lose everyone else. Speed trials make sense in auto racing but are inimical to crossword-puzzling, an easygoing intellectual pursuit that is inherently noncompetitive. Shortz might as well book the Stamford Marriott for bouts of Shakespearean speed-reading and hand out an annual prize to the person who enunciates the entire text of Macbeth most rapidly. Given this country’s current willingness to turn almost any human activity into a pseudosport, that just might happen. If it does, here’s hoping Stewart isn’t invited.

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