Directed by: Patrick Creadon
Written by: Patrick Creadon & Christine O'Malley
Ever since the success of Spellbound, which I found dull, it seems that indie documentary filmmakers can’t scramble fast enough to record other seemingly boring contests and attempt to imbue them with a weightier resonance than they actually possess. The DVD-era, in tandem with more democratic access to camera and editing equipment, is bringing on a series of non-fiction films that would really function better as Wikipedia entries: 2004 brought us Word Wars, about competitive Scrabble players, and 2006 brings us Word Play. I readily expect a movie about Sudoku to be released before I finish writing this article. Imagine the visual possibilities: people on subway cars, with newspapers and pens in hand…
The first half of Word Play is interesting, at least for me as an amateur solver, as it delves into the history of crossword puzzles, the personalities of the people behind them (most prominently Will Shortz, editor of the Times puzzle), and parades a handful of celebrity solvers to offer insight. Taking only forty-five minutes to do this, however, the filmmakers needed another angle to pad out the film, and they found it in the Stamford Crossword Tournament, a crossworld puzzle competition and the focus of the film’s second half. Hang onto your hats, readership.
Watching people do crossword puzzles, even if you jazz it up with rock music, split screen and animation, is about as captivating as watching someone read a book. (Unless, of course, the person doing the solving is Jon Stewart or Bill Clinton, who respectively offer-up jokes and wisdom while filling in their tiny white squares.) Otherwise, however, the people who excel at crosswords are strikingly average, notable only for being slightly awkward or pretentious, and watching them zip through the Sunday Times puzzle is impressive but hardly interesting. Similarly, watching the puzzle constructors build a puzzle is intriguing, but the film makes the process no less mystifying.
The filmmakers’ attempt to infuse the tournament with poignancy via montage and a sorry rendition of “Take Me to the River” fails embarrassingly; it takes more than slow-motion embraces and soft guitar-music to tug my heartstrings. Overall, the whole project is poorly conceived and poorly executed; near the end they find a moment of genuine pathos when, during the competition’s final round, a pitiable player makes a stupid mistake that costs him the crown. It’s a serendipitous accident for the filmmakers, and without that kind of filmmaking fortune this would be an out and out travesty.