Because ``Spellbound," the 2002 spelling-bee documentary, was an Oscar-nominated hit, we got 2004's ``Word Wars," about Scrabble obsessives. And because that film was well received, we now have ``Wordplay," a documentary peek into the world of crossword puzzle fanatics.
Let me know when we get to Sudoku; I'll be in the next theater watching the latest ``The Fast and the Furious" sequel.
``Wordplay" is sweet, indulgent, and surprisingly soft in the center; the most minor entry in the brainiac-doc genre to date, it's nevertheless a perfectly entertaining hour and a half for crossword adepts. Greater illumination eludes first-time director Patrick Creadon, though. Where ``Spellbound" gave us a glimpse into childhood pressures and ``Word Wars" was about the loneliness of the long-distance Scrabbler, ``Wordplay" is content to celebrate what it sees as a word geek's paradise.
Creadon brings out a number of heavy hitters to testify to their love of cruciverbalism . Both Bill Clinton and Bob Dole talk about the Election Day 1996
From his back porch, filmmaker Ken Burns waxes profound and/or profoundly ridiculous; according to him, crossword puzzles are ``an iconic manifestation of civilization, like the Brooklyn Bridge." New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina and the Indigo Girls (Amy Ray and Emily Saliers) chime in, while comedian Jon Stewart treats the daily crossword as if it were a personal mano-a-mano confrontation with Times puzzle editor Will Shortz. (Stewart allows that he'll do the USA Today puzzle in a pinch, ``but I won't feel good about it.")
The true stars of ``Wordplay," though, are the devoted who show up for the annual American Crossword Tournament at the Marriott Hotel in Stamford, Conn. Stalwarts like seven-time winner Jon Delfin, upstart Trip Payne, perennial third-placer Al Sanders, and self-professed ``little nerd girl" Ellen Ripstein organize their calendar around the event, hoping to win the $4,000 purse but really just lusting for loghorrheic glory. (The less said about the guy who wears a crossword-puzzle hat throughout the tournament and the man who writes crossword-puzzle love songs, the better.)
The new gun in town is Tyler Hinman, a 20-year-old student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who hopes to take the 2005 contest and be the youngest champ ever. ``Wordplay" eventually hunkers down in the Marriott for the duration, and the question becomes not who will win but whether it's possible to make a room full of 300 people silently filling out little boxes compelling. The answer is that it's not, although the final championship round between three contenders does throw off sparks of drama.
``Wordplay" is more interesting in its first half, when we get a sense of the ways crosswording reflects how some people see the world. Delfin, a professional pianist, describes how each new score is like a puzzle itself, and you get a sense of Payne's helpless hyperverbalism when he makes anagrams of passing road signs. The film's best scenes involve Merl Reagle, a crossword constructor who discourses amusingly on ``the rules" and gripes about not being able to use certain words. (`` `Urine' and `enema' -- talk about great letters," he says.)
Creadon could have used Reagle as a springboard to a chapter on crosswording's roots in the Jazz Age, or on the sad, controversial rise of computer-constructed puzzles. Instead, he's content to worship the exceptionally genial Shortz as a rock star and provide The New York Times with fulsome free publicity.
Only at the end of ``Wordplay" is there an attempt to divine what it all means -- why some of us are moved to tackle that grid day after day. Answers range from ``the basic human need to figure things out" to ``love of language" to a need for regularity, but the most honest response comes from Bill Clinton.
``I dunno," he says. ``They're fun." Right again, Mr. President.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He does the Sunday Times puzzle in pen but always has trouble with Saturday ' s.