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No puzzle why this movie's a winner



Published: Thu, September 7, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



Puzzle creators and fans are profiled in this fascinating documentary.

By CARRIE RICKEY

PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER

"Wordplay" is a composite portrait of the estimated 50 million Americans weekly -- including Bill Clinton, Bob Dole and Jon Stewart -- who clear the cobwebs from their mental machinery by completing a crossword.

From the looks of the puzzle practitioners in Patrick Creadon's diverting documentary, there is an eight-letter expression for their kind: WORD NERD.

Prudent players do it in pencil. The proud do it in pen.

Documentarian Ken Burns self-importantly calls crosswords an American "iconic manifestation." (Try fitting that into a crossword grid.) Burns does his in ink.

The preferred puzzle of word nerds is in The New York Times, where editor Will Shortz is chief architect of across and down. While this mustached puzzle master is the main figure of Creadon's chronicle, he's planted in the center of the film like a tree whose spindly trunk is overwhelmed by its colorful branches.

Livelier on camera is Merl Reagle (puzzle maker for The Philadelphia Inquirer), who, in the film's most involving passage, shares the process of a crossword's creation. He shows us that a crossword is akin to simultaneously composing music and lyric -- the words need to fit a rhythmic pattern.

Presidential style

In another fascinating segment, former President Clinton reveals his puzzle strategy: He builds up from one corner and works out, comparing it to diplomatic problem-solving.

In segments such as the Reagle and Clinton interviews, where character is revealed via puzzle style, "Wordplay" succeeds. The film is less successful when it travels to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Watching contestants pore over puzzles that the audience can't see lacks the participatory quality of the film's best moments.




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