Give Patrick Creadon points for honesty, at least: in his Filmmaker’s Statement for Wordplay, he admits his original concept of a crossword puzzle documentary focused on Times puzzle editor Will Shortz was expanded because “general audiences, we feared, might not find this… interesting.” It’s a slightly prettier version of “I decided to interview celebrities and ride their name recognition to a distribution deal,” and reveals the focus group pandering that serves as Wordplay’s organizing principle.
At its core is the subculture grown up around the New York Times crossword (the gold standard, we’re frequently reminded), especially Shortz, his stable of puzzle constructors, and several of the prominent puzzlers about to converge at a Marriot in Stamford, Connecticut for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
The puzzle nerds have the slightly self-conscious wonkish charm of obsessive shut-ins nurtured into the open, but Creadon pads the project to feature length with pull-quotes from strategically selected crossword enthusiasts: Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, Mike Mussina, Ken Burns, the Indigo Girls, etc. As they parade by, saying the same things, it’s obvious Creadon wants to flatter his PBS tote bag demographic by assuring them that their icons share their interests. The audience suck-up reaches its nadir with a montage of the tournament competitors bonding after the first night of the tournament, scored to a cover of ‘This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)’ so hammy-saccharine as to induce acid reflux.
The goal, apparently, is to appeal to the people who’ll chuckle knowingly at the sight of something recognizable, just because seeing it on the big screen is such a kick (and never mind the who-cares-how-it-looks DV and thuddingly literal sound-image juxtaposition). Wordplay is the middlebrow equivalent of a sign held up outside The Today Show.