WordPlay, Sept. 06


The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart does it with a marking pen. The Indigo Girls do it together. Former President Bill Clinton does it by starting with the obvious. They are among the passionate people who flex their gray matter doing the mother of all crosswords, the New York Times crossword puzzle.

This playful documentary including minimal nerd factor examines a subculture that thrives on words and is never out of reach of a dictionary. It’s about people who solve puzzles. It’s about people who compete to solve puzzles in record speed. And it’s about puzzle-head crossword constructors like Trip Payne and Merl Reagle, who are naturally programmed to see anagrams and wordplay all around them.

“If you take the first letter of Dunkin’ and move it to the end,” says Reagle, driving by a Dunkin’ Donuts shop, “it becomes Unkind Donuts.”

The film is staged in part at the 29th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut, featuring puzzle-meisters who compete year after year. The tournament coverage continues a little too long for my money, but never mind. This is the rare assembly of well-greased brains.

WordPlay features Will Shortz, crossword editor for the New York Times and Puzzle Master for National Public Radio. Shortz has carved an uncommon niche. From an early age he recognized that puzzles were his destiny. And having turned pro at age 14, Shortz holds the only known college degree in Enigmatology, the study of puzzles. I once heard Shortz interviewed on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, where he was asked to solve a series of verbal brain teasers. Shortz solved each of them instantly, before I could even grasp the questions. That’s when I formed my own theories about puzzle people. First, I believe they have special brain wiring that allows them to compute more efficiently. Second, I believe they know everything.

WordPlay was the Official Selection at this year’s Sundance and Tribeca Film Festivals. And being a puzzle solver is not required to enjoy this happy little romp across and down. It might whet your appetite for crosswords. And for those obscure words that you’ll never encounter again, until you tackle your next puzzle. B