Wordplay

I need an eight-letter word for “clever, fun documentary.” “Wordplay.”

The simple answer to “Wordplay” is that it’s a pleasant doc about the joy of doing crossword puzzles. If, like a crossword, you think such a documentary would be a meaningless waste of your time, you may find that Patrick Creadon’s film is actually about thinking differently and finding uses for these trivial facts.

That’s what celebrities like Jon Stewart, Ken Burns and Bill Clinton do when they do The New York Times crossword. Clinton says it’s important to unravel a problem in multiple ways until you find the right answer. He’s applied that philosophy to NYT Crossword Editor Will Shortz’s puzzles every Sunday.

Shortz has almost single-handedly made crosswords into a new American pastime. Shortz majored in the study of puzzles, or enigmatology, at Indiana University as an elective major, and his enthusiasm for these word games has created a new community of people with a desire to have their minds challenged in impractical ways.

Creadon then follows a group of participants in Shortz’s annual crossword puzzle tournament and some of the geniuses behind building the puzzles. One is Merl Reagle, who labors over puzzles and twists words in such a way (Dunkin’ Donuts with the D moved is Unkind Donuts, which they often are) that he too makes you rethink how you would approach a puzzle were you to make one yourself.

I’m an IU alum myself, and I had the honor of interviewing both Shortz and Reagle. Reagle told me my name, Brian Welk, could make a Sudoku because it’s nine letters with none repeating. He really does do this with everyone.

What’s cute is that “Wordplay” takes place in its own little boxes. It exposes us to isolated, tiny, unseen vignettes of celebrities enjoying a hobby and average Joes with a remarkable knack for puzzling, and then it transitions between them with vertical and horizontal cross cuts.

But most of all, the people are the most pleasant. They’re competing in a tournament of intense competitors, but everyone seems to be having so much fun. One contestant invited a newcomer and stranger to dinner upon meeting. It’s a stark contrast from the strictly serious champs in “The King of Kong,” a similar documentary about a tournament of Donkey Kong players.

If there’s one agreed upon thing in “Wordplay,” it’s that the New York Times crossword puzzle is the only real challenge in the biz. That’s why I immediately downloaded the NYT Crossword App for the iPad, convincing myself I might be better at these than the Indigo Girls.

As I slowly worked through them, I found myself coming up with more four-letter words than anything else.

3.5 stars

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