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IFC presents
Wordplay (2006)

"The Times puzzle is the one for me."
- Jon Stewart

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: November 07, 2006

Stars: Will Shortz, Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, Bob Dole, Mike Mussina
Director: Patrick Creadon

MPAA Rating: PG for some language and mild thematic elements
Run Time: 01h:25m:17s
Release Date: November 07, 2006
UPC: 796019796156
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-BB B+

DVD Review

The New York Times has ballooned to sections numbering in the double digits, is fat with ads and supplements and color pictures, sets the tone for all of the American media—and yet the most important thing in the paper every day, for a good number of us, is the quarter page usually in the C section devoted to a black-and-white grid with an accompanying set of clues that grow more opaque as the week rolls on. I speak of course of the crossword puzzle, and this documentary is a celebration of its creators and its most ardent and famous fans. You may have to be a crossword devotee to appreciate this, and what's especially endearing is that it's a film that embraces its geekiness. Nerds of the world, unite. We have nothing to lose but our pocket protectors.

The leading man here is Will Shortz, the Times' puzzle editor since 1993, famous also for his weekly NPR gig on Weekend Edition. Shortz is an affable fellow, who's clearly over the moon about his job; he talks about being a diehard puzzler since he was a kid, and even fashioned his own college education in the subject of puzzles, so he's truly living the dream. Especially entertaining for those of us who simply solve (or at least try to solve) the puzzle is Merl Reagle, one of the many who create the Times' puzzles, and the filmmakers have constructed their movie as cleverly as a Sunday acrostic, showing us Reagle creating a particular crossword, and then interviewing a gaggle of celebrities as they try to solve it.

These include Jon Stewart, cutting up in his office; Bill Clinton, who beams while reminiscing about the paper, an Arkansas boy's fascination with faraway, cosmopolitan New York; and Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, who, with his Stanford diploma, is clearly overeducated for his job. It's sweet to see the Indigo Girls get downright giddy remembering when they made the puzzle as a clue; documentarian Ken Burns takes this all deathly seriously; and Daniel Okrent, onetime Times ombudsman, is wry and charming, though his log in which he displays his crossword finishing times is a little disturbing. (Full confession: I used to work for Dan, and he remains one of my favorite people. Also, depending on your perspective, he'll forever have a place in the pantheon or in ignominy for being the man who invented Rotisserie-league baseball.)

The second half of the film is weighted toward Shortz's annual crossword tournament, held in Stamford, Connecticut, and the filmmakers interview a series of top contestants, who discuss how the event has evolved over the years, and how hungry they are to win. They're all kind of charming and dorky, but this all feels a little unnatural to me—the defining crossword puzzle experience is mute and solitary and leisurely, and a well-worked crossword should have coffee stains and crossouts on it, but here instead the final puzzles are done on great big posterboards with magic markers and play-by-play announcers for the assembled masses. Still, it's hard not to get caught up in the competition and pick your favorites, making this sort of the grown-up version of Spellbound—even if your horse doesn't come in for you, you're likely to reach for Sunday's magazine and want to have a go at a puzzle yourself, which, I bet, is exactly how Shortz would like it.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The transfer is adequate, though the contrast level is frequently too high; this may be due to the camera originals, though, and not a fault of the DVD pressing.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The 5.1 mix seems like a bit much, but generally there's little aural interference. The crowd scenes at the tournament sound badly miked, though, and much of the shooting was done in the lobby, where the acoustics seem abominable.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring Clerks II, Factotum, Land of Plenty, Pizza
23 Deleted Scenes
12 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Patrick Creadon, Will Shortz, Merl Reagle
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet
Extras Review: The director is joined by his leading man and constructor Merl Reagle on a giggly commentary track—everybody's got their own crossword story to tell, and in truth, the people in this crossword world seem about the nicest folks imaginable. They have a merry old time on this track, which is more mirthful than it is crammed with information; understandably, they seem especially wowed by celebrity, with Jon Stewart and Bill Clinton at the top of the pantheon.

Seven deleted scenes (07m:09s) with Shortz show him around the house, at his tournament, and going back and forth with Liane Hanson, with him in New York, her in the NPR studios in Washington. Another six deleted scenes (07m:35s) show us more of Reagle on writing clues and focus on some of the leading tournament contestants. And three more (05m:37s) are from the 2005 tournament; one of these is of a troubadour strumming his composition, what's become a de facto crossword theme song, apparently, and it comes with subtitles, so feel free to sing along.

Seven bonus interviews (12m:17s) with those famous outside of crossword circles show us Stewart threatening to throw down with Shortz, and Mussina and Clinton giving tips on crossword strategy. (Without exception, everyone here does the crossword puzzle in pen.) We get to meet a quintet of Reagle's confreres in a series of featurettes (14m:42s) called Five Unforgettable Puzzles from the New York Times—it's a great chance to learn more about how these puzzles are put together, and the final products are available both in an accompanying booklet and on the DVD-ROM content of the disc.

The puzzlers and their chroniclers were ready for their closeup at Sundance, and in three featurettes (21m:04s), we see what happens when Wordplay Goes to Utah. They're nervous before the screening, fielding questions after it, and then later out and about in Park City. And a photo gallery (02m:50s) is dominated by Sundance snapshots. Gary Louris' Every Word (02m:34s) is a crossword-themed music video; you can see how old friends fared the following year in a look (03m:33s) at the finals from Stamford in 2006. Finally, Waiting for The New York Times (12m:21s) is Patricia Erens' chronicle of trying to get her copy of all the news that's fit to print after she moves from the big city to a small town in Michigan.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

A charmingly, exuberantly geeky look at the grids that can torment us, those who create them, and those who solve them more quickly than anyone else.


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