Believe it or not, being a film critic does have occupational hazards above and beyond Martin Lawrence movies. Or paper cuts. Or eyestrain, or exploding pens. The occupational hazard I'm thinking of is one you only encounter when you see a number of movies that's unquantifiable as a number, but instead expressed as a number of films somewhere between 'more than a normal person would' and 'less than Scorsese.' Now and then, you just run across a film so … like … another film that you can't help but judge the second film unkindly. And this is what happened today to me at Sundance, at one of the most crowded press screening's I've been to so far, for the documentary Wordplay.
Wordplay is, essentially, about New York Times Crossword Editor Will Shortz. The film takes Shortz's life and work and puts it under the microscope, as well as showing us the previously-hidden (or, rather, easily-ignored) world of the Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held every year in Stamford, Connecticut. The film has plenty of interviews; it talks about the tradition of crossword puzzles; it follows regular (and not-so-regular) people who have applied themselves to become crossword champs; it uses computer effects to show us the nature of the mechanics of a pastime that uses a rigid structure to contain and celebrate all the boundless flow and flux of English.
In other words, it's a lot like the Sundance 2004 Scrabble documentary Word Wars. Not just in matters of topic and tone, either; the structure, editing style and interview techniques of Wordplay are so similar to Word Wars that I had to double-check to make sure it wasn't a follow-up film from Word Wars directors Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo. Wordplay is directed by Patrick Creadon, who's spent 25 years working on documentary films alongside his wife – and it is a light, fun, fluffy bit of piffle.
And by 'piffle,' I mean that Wordplay has all the gravitas of lint. Creadon talks to several famous crossword buffs – Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, The Indigo Girls, Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina – and gets fun, light stuff out of them. Stewart is the best, shouting at the NYT crossword with mock bravado: "Bring it on, Shortz! Bring it!" Clinton and Mussina are charming and agreeable about their pastime, while Burns is, like his films, self-important and dull. Burns explains: "I don't smoke, I don't drink coffee, and I don't need to have a drink at the end of the day. What I do need is to solve the New York Times crossword, every day, in ink." I'm far, far from grade school, and I wasn't a bully back then, but It's been decades since I wanted to wedgie someone and then smudge their glasses as badly as the smug, simpering Burns seemed to be begging me to in that moment.
We also meet several crossword buffs getting ready for Stamford: 20-year old wunderkind frat-boy puzzle-nerd Tyler Hinman; Ellen Ripstein, who had an 18-year-long series of top finishes that never got her a championship until 2001; professional crossword creator Trip Payne; paternal and polite project manager Al Sanders, who's come in third place five of the prior six years of the tournament.
But as the film builds up to the Championship, I realized that what Scrabble has – and crosswords do not – is a face-to-face, one-on-one element of direct conflict between people. When Trip and Ellen and Al are tying to beat a crossword puzzle, the person who made it isn't sitting across the table from them, actively changing things to thwart their progress. Word Wars had a clash of people and personalities that raised my interest level; people solving crosswords against a timer is a challenge, but it's not really a conflict.
Of course, if I hadn't seen Word Wars, I may have liked Wordplay just fine. It's a nice little movie: To use Mamet-speak, it's 'cute as a pail of kittens.' Shortz is a likable, affable, smart guy who seems to be well aware he's found the gig he's always wanted to have and feels lucky in how much he loves his work. And the audience at the press screening seemed to like it – possibly because the average crossword buff is so insular, obsessive, goal-focused and nerdy that they make the average film critic look like Cary Grant or Angelina Jolie in comparison. (During the Stamford tournament, Trip reacts to final scoring: "It's a three-way tie for first! That's going to be epic!" You understand that Trip is into what he's into, but at the same time you'd think a word nerd would have a better understanding of the actual definition of 'epic.' ) In 2004, Word Wars brought Sundance Scrabble; in 2006, Wordplay brought Sundance crossword puzzles. I'm looking forward to 2008, and some hypothetical documentary titled Qu is All or Knit-Wits or Assault and Philately rocks Park City with incendiary filmmaking that rips the lid off Boggle, knitting, stamp collecting or some other boring, dorky time-killer hobby White people do when they're lonely and smart. Wordplay isn't awful, but the fact is that seeing it after Word Wars makes it feel like a redundant reflection of a similar, better film about pretty minor pastime.
Others on Wordplay: Writing at Flavorpill, Lisa Rosman says the film "may be a trifle, but it's a fun trifle," while Variety's Justin Chang calls it a "buoyant and exhilaratingly brainy docu[mentary]."