directed by Patrick Creadon
(Weinstein, 2006)

Jon Stewart does it. So do Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, filmmaker Ken Burns and the Indigo Girls, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers.

And, in a strange twist of fate, so do Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. Though not together.

Wordplay pays homage to the New York Times crossword puzzle and its editor, Will Shortz, as well as all the anonymous-in-most-circles aficionados who debate and compete and agonize over those little squares of black and white.

The Times puzzle has a long and glorious history, beginning with the first puzzle editor, who standardized the rules for creating crosswords, and also established an unofficial "Sunday morning rule" -- no vulgar language.

"'Urine' would bail me out of a corner," says puzzle designer Merl Reagle almost wistfully. "Same with 'enema.' 'Enema' ... talk about great letters."

You know, I've never thought about it like that before.

Writer/director Patrick Creadon's previous projects were more along the lines of "Maxim's Hot 100." Yet here, his inner word geek shows: It would be easy to giggle at some of the regular folks who descend on the Samford, Conn., Marriott each year for the annual crossword championship -- Ellen Ripstein, a former champion whose contribution to the talent show is a baton routine; three-time champ Trip "I've always been intrigued by the letter 'Q'" Payne; Al Sanders, who has finished third at nationals three times; college-age wunderkind Tyler Hinman.

But Creadon doesn't. Instead, you get to know them as well as you think you know all the celebrity Times crossword fans he interviews.

And you get to know Shortz, whose work on sifting through submissions and ranking them from "easy" (relatively speaking, on Monday) to more difficult as the week progresses, has made him the guru of the crossword world.

"Using (a crossword by master puzzle creator Merl) Reagle on a Tuesday," says one avid puzzle solver, "is like using Barry Bonds in Little League."

The puzzles from the likes of Reagle that Shortz publishes in the Times also have made him the bane of some readers' existence. These are "fan letters" that anyone who has worked in a public profession will recognize.

"You are sick, sick, sick," blasts one reader in a letter read by a gleeful Shortz, before signing off on the missive "Sincerely."

Why does Shortz put up with all of it? "To stretch people's brains and bring joy to their lives," he says.

So before you get all proud of yourself for figuring out even part of a New York Times crossword, just ask yourself: Did you use a pencil? Or did you throw caution to the wind and, like a real crossword competitor, use a pen?

review by
Jen Kopf

23 February 2008

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