On a weekend when the moviegoing options are huge-budget adventure flicks like “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and “Superman Returns,” a tiny little intellectual giant of a documentary comes to the Michigan Theater. “Wordplay” is a neatly placed alternative to the monotony of over-the-top-action and predictable blockbuster plots.

Angela Cesere
“Look at my bowtie!” (Courtesy of IFC Films)

Half of “Wordplay” is a biography of Will Shortz, the legendary New York Times crossword puzzle editor, and half is a documentary of the largest and most prestigious crossword competition in the United States. The film begins with Shortz’s puzzle-making history, from his boyhood fascination with solving problems to when he created his own curriculum in “Enigmatology” at Indiana University.

The audience is taken briefly through the history of the crossword tradition at the Times, and into the beginning of Shortz’s career. From the streets of Manhattan to Stamford, Connecticut, we’re swept into the fast-paced American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, founded by Shortz in the ’70s and still directed and hosted by the “Puzzle Master” himself every year.

“Wordplay” chronicles the historic aspect of the newspaper crossword institution, and it also gives the audience a feel for the huge scope of its impact on a day-to-day basis. More than 50 million Americans flip to the puzzle page each week. The film features several cameos – some of the United States’ biggest names in politics, entertainment and sports – expressing why the crossword is important to them. Among Shortz’s biggest fans are Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, the Indigo Girls, Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, filmmaker Ken Burns and The Daily Show’s Jon Stuart, who says, “I am a Times puzzle fan. I will solve the USA Today, but I don’t feel good about myself.”

The film is well-paced. It has a nice, easy-going, Sunday-afternoon sort of appeal, while the ACPT provides enough action and tension to keep the audience interested for an hour and a half. Its structure is impeccable, and director Patrick Creadon strikes a nice balance with the funny, light-hearted material and the crosswords-are-serious-business feel.

The power in “Wordplay” derives from how it makes the most ordinary activity feel special and universal. Most audience members won’t have thought twice about their morning-coffee-puzzle routine before this film. “Wordplay” imbues the crossword experience with an importance and an esteem. But when the credits roll, it’s hard to shake the feeling that while the film is enjoyable, you could probably stay home and watch something similar on PBS for free.

Rating: Three and a half out of five stars

At the Michigan
IFC Films

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