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Wednesday, July 5, 2006

In a word

All the white-knuckled thrill and tension of a crossword doc

Posted By on Wed, Jul 5, 2006 at 12:00 AM

Four letters: Seinfeld’s “____, that and the other thing.” (THIS)

Five letters: Wordplay charades category. (MOVIE)

Five letters: Kind of queens. (DRAGS)

There’s a science and an art to crossword-puzzle-making that, until Wordplay, was just something we all took for granted. We’d naively while away Sunday mornings, mindlessly filling in answers like “water buffalo,” “Star Jones” and “Metropolis,” without much concern for the people who write clues like “H2O mammal,” “stomach staple?” and “Superman’s crib.”

And we were fine with that. Just because there’s science and art to something doesn’t make it fascinating fodder for a 90-minute documentary.

Wordplay is replete with flecks of puzzle-making trivia that cling to you like cerebral lint: There’s a standardized way to make a puzzle with a specific ratio of black-to-white squares. Puzzles must be symmetrical, so that if you flip them upside down, they look the same. Two-letter words are a no. Brush away the trivia, and you’re left with a celebrity-tinged, second-rate version of the spelling bee doc Spellbound, only not nearly as endearing or entertaining.

In Wordplay, director, co-writer and cinematographer Patrick Creadon follows a group of elite “puzzleheads” on their journey to compete in the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Yes, there is such a thing. Creadon follows a gay clue-maker who fled to Florida to get some distance from the heated puzzle scene; a 20-year-old Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute engineering student who’s touted as the golden boy; and a piano-player-for-hire who’s a seven-time puzzle champ. Fans of Metro Timesonline crossword will even catch a glimpse of our very own puzzlemaster Ben Tausig singing a crossword-themed song.

These are people who can solve a Sunday New York Times puzzle in ink in less time than it takes the average person to brew a cup of coffee and open the paper. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating smart people. We waste too much pop-culture time on people who haven’t figured out yet that buffalo wings are chicken.

Creadon’s Wordplay, however, is a far too gooey a love letter to crosswords and puzzleheads, in dire need of a touch of Best in Show irony. A lengthy montage of scenes from the annual tournament is filled with lots of high-school-video-yearbook variety hug-filled reunions and merrymaking, as if to say, “Hey, these people are just like us.” And then Creadon throws in a jarring vision of a puzzle champ doing a baton-twirling routine at the annual tournament talent show, as if to say, “No, they are not.” But the message is mixed: Do we mock or cheer them, snicker or smile?

Then, in attempt to add a little Rudy flavor to the movie, Creadon gives a painful blow-by-blow, clue-by-clue, square-by-square account of the 28th annual competition, held in Stamford, Conn. Nail-biting, white-knuckled drama this is not.

This movie is so gushy, Creadon cannot find enough ways to praise the Sunday New York Times puzzle and the man who edits it, Will Shortz. The director even gathers up an odd collection of celebrities who explain their love for the puzzle. Jon Stewart challenging puzzle writers to “come on, bring it” is amusing, but do you care what Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina or the Indigo Girls have to say about their puzzle habits? You don’t need a clue to answer that, and the word has two letters.

Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to


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