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Directed by Patrick Creadon.
Written by Patrick Creadon & Christine O'Malley.
Release Year:  2006 
Review Date:  7/6/06


There's a moment in the new crossword puzzle documentary "Wordplay" where we get to meet Al, father of three, loving husband, avid crossword puzzler.  Or maybe it's "crossworder."  Or maybe it's just "nerd."  Either way, we sit down with Al as he picks up a crossword puzzle from The New York Times and the offscreen interviewer times Al as he goes through the dozens of clues to complete the puzzle.  The timer shows up in the corner.  I'm thinking this timer is showing us hours and minutes, so when Al finishes in just over two-and-a-half hours, I'm thinking "hmm, pretty good, given that he's doing this puzzle right before he goes to bed"...and then, it hits me:

He did the whole puzzle in two-and-a-half minutes.

Al basically read every clue in order and filled in every answer, almost as if he was grading a test...except, his brain was working about ten zillion times faster than mine would.  Such is the feeling you get from watching "Wordplay", much like I did when I watched "An Inconvenient Truth"--you almost can't believe a film can be fascinating AND depressing the whole way through at the same time, but whammo!, they somehow can do it.  This is because you like to believe that you are a reasonably smart person, and then "Wordplay" starts, and you immediately realize that you might be a really nice person, but not a really smart person (or, if anything else, garbage in the larger scheme of things when it comes to completing crossword puzzles).

The film, which essentially traces the history of crossword puzzles, the current Times crossword puzzle editor & NPR contributor Will Shortz (who, we learn, actually MAJORED in crosswords while at Indiana University), and the annual crossword puzzle national championships held each year in Stamford, CT, is a fun look at how puzzles are put together and--borrowing from the recent rash of nerd-inspired character studies of films like "Spellbound"--the kinds of people that seem to thrive in an environment with one-to-four word clues and lots of empty boxes.  The editing also allows for Joe Blow to follow along as we get to watch how a guy might work through a puzzle, or create a puzzle, or guess at clues based on the theme of a given puzzle.

Throw in some cameos by smart famous people, like Stanford graduate & Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, Bill Clinton, and "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart, plus a 30-minute stretch that follows what happened at the 2005 puzzle tournament, and you've got yourself a pretty good documentary for the whole family AND a movie that will make you go home and do the next crossword puzzle you see.  Sad fact: along with four other reasonably-intelligent people, I attempted a recent Washington Post Magazine puzzle after seeing this film, and over the course of about five hours, we came up with not more than about 25% of the answers.  I might want to hold off on entering next year's puzzle contest, eh?

Rating:  Opening Weekend


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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The "fine print":
All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09