Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, The Indigo Girls, Ken Burns, and Mike Mussina are among the big-name word nerds who get their geek on in Wordplay, a wry crowd-pleaser about the colorful subculture of die-hard crossword aficionados and the puzzle pimps who provide them with their daily fix. The advertising for Wordplay plays up the participation of defiantly mustachioed New York Times crossword puzzle editor, guru, and cult hero Will Shortz. Shortz's role as ringleader and unofficial capo of the crossword sub-culture is central to both the tight-knit puzzle-solving and creating community and the film itself, but Patrick Creadon's genial documentary is really a sprawling ensemble piece with an outsized cast of colorful characters.
Wordplay's first hour provides an overview of the crossword puzzle's evolution and Shortz's prominent role in popularizing it, both at The New York Times and on NPR. Celebrity crossword buffs wax philosophical about the puzzle as a potent metaphor for the world it divides into panels and squares, as when Burns argues that the crosswords are the perfect leisure activity for New Yorkers occupying a city dominated by blocks, grids, and towering skyscrapers. The film's last half-hour documents a particularly dramatic crossword-puzzle-solving tournament that pits an ingratiatingly neurotic middle-aged gay man against a 19-year-old frat boy and unlikely crossword-solving savant.
There are seemingly few subjects less cinematic than poindexters filling out grids and boxes, but the filmmakers create a palpable sense of excitement by dividing the screen into split screens that invite audiences to fill out puzzles alongside the film's subjects. Wordplay suggests what Spellbound might have grown up to become had it attended an Ivy League school and became an academic and NPR subscriber. The film's subjects are almost uniformly likable, self-deprecating, funny, and hyper-verbal, and their peculiar passion for crosswords and the sense of genial camaraderie among buffs proves surprisingly infectious.