July 6, 2006

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Wordplay (PG)
Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, lives the geek dream of rock and roll status for nerdy achievements in Wordplay, a delightful documentary about the vocabulary (and spelling) testing puzzle and the word fiends who love them.

Who is a word fiend? Well, you have former New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent. You have Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers (who are sort of giggly when they talk about their experience being in the New York Times crossword). You have former president Bill Clinton and his former opponent Bob Dole. You have Jon Stewart. You have baseball player Mike Mussina. And then you have a slew of regular Joes and Janes who train all year to compete at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament held annually at a Marriott in Stamford, Conn. (The next one will be the 30th annual competition and will take place March 23 through 25 of 2007. Go to www.crosswordtournament.com if the movie ignites a geeky passion in you.)

We see these people do the crossword and discuss the crossword and explain why the crossword (and specifically the Will Shortz directed the New York Times crosswords) are so important to them. For the daily crossword puzzler, the New York Times crossword represents sort of a mental trip to the gym, a place where the puzzler can flex different intellectual muscles and take a break from the worries of the day. For the tournament goers, the crossword has become more than just a part of their daily routine but (like runners who join clubs to prepare for marathons or bikers who hook up with touring groups) a way that they can socialize with others who have similar interests. The annual tournament as we get to see it is a blend of class reunion and hotly contested competition. Past winners who no longer place in the top tier go to see friends and new generations take first place. The event runs two days and after a first day of grueling crosswords, the puzzlers blow off steam with a talent show (which is endearing for its bookish quality).

The film's most illuminating moments come when we meet some of the puzzle creators who Shortz edits. The processes for putting together a puzzle is engrossing and as much of a mind bender as solving them. It's a neat film moment — who would think that trying to find a word with two "y's could be as edge-of-your-seat as a Bruckheimer car chase?

What makes the movie so endearing is the way it uses standard sports documentary format (the big game, meeting the players, learning the culture of the game) to glorify something that is both universally accessible and a somewhat academic pursuit. (By the way, even if you don't live in Manhattan, you can get the New York Times crossword puzzle — for free if you only want one a week and for $34.95 per year for a daily puzzle — at www.nytimes.com/pages/crosswords/.) And, pulling it all together is the affable Shortz, who has a "favorite professor" air about him and genuine, infectious passion for what he does. A


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