Wordplay

Pardon the condescension to follow, but I must. This documentary is adorable in that whole “THESE PEOPLE HAVE NOTHING ELSE GOING FOR THEM” kind of way.

The word adorable is used earnestly in that last sentence, though. Wordplay is definitely a sweet little movie, a behind-the-scenes look at the 5 w’s and 1 h of crossword puzzling. The name in the game is, of course, Will Shortz, who edits the NYT puzzle. He’s a pretty cool dude, even if his mustache is oddly groomed. He’s so cool, in fact, that he made up his own major in college. It related to puzzle-solving. Damn. See, I really like this guy because he’s so obviously a nerd, but he’s not an elitist about it. He just loves puzzles, and he can also have a normal conversation with someone, proving that those two traits are not mutually exclusive.

The rest of the individuals in the film, however, do show that true geekery means you have to sacrifice your ability to sustain normal social interactions. Throughout the documentary, we’re confronted with the people who come up with the puzzles and submit them to Shortz, the people who are so good at crosswords that they compete in an annual contest for a money prize, and the celebrities to appear just to make the whole thing seem a little more appealing. The first set, the creators, are huge fucking nerds. One guy, in particular, ruins everything by turning words he sees into anagrams. It’s an incredibly disjointed way to hold a conversation, though it does make me feel better about inserting Arrested Development quotes into many of the conversations I have. Freebie, right? Anyway, despite this guy’s social shortcomings, he really is a certain type of genius, and I just wish I could remember his name. Props, puzzle guy! Someday I’ll solve one of your creations myself.

The crossword pros are a different kind of huge fucking nerd, and by that I mean several more synonyms for “huge.” My God. I’ve interacted with some dorks before, but these people take the cake. It’s not that I’m judging them or anything; I love crosswords myself and do the one in New York Magazine every week. It’s not that I’m jealous of their talent, either; I’m glad crosswords take me longer than, say, two minutes to do, because that way I get to enjoy them for longer. Anyway, the geekery here stems from the single fact that these people, these “competitors” at certain times of the year, take this whole puzzling thing way too seriously. During the part of the movie that followed the rounds of the competition, there were interviews with the top puzzlers, and they’d give the play-by-play of their puzzle solving from the previous round. Imagine, for a second, the post-game quotes often pulled by on-field reporters on ESPN. Something like, “I tried my best out there, we played as a team, I’m just glad to be giving the people what they want.” You know, infuriating, generic, irrelevant. Crossword puzzle self-commentary is the opposite of that. It’s over-detailed (“I knew 4-Across was 6 letters, but the second one was an A so that meant that 12-Down couldn’t have been an adjective. That’s where I slowed down.”) and when it’s actually recited out loud, it’s incredibly boring. The competition itself was oddly exciting without all the commentary, but all of these little side interviews made it completely ridiculous. My roommate put it best: It was like a real-life Best in Show.

I’m sure all of those crossword nerds are lovely people (especially the guy from Florida, he was great!) but thank goodness there were famous people in this thing. Jon Stewart is a crossword guy, so much so that he amusingly insulted wordsearch people. And President Bill Clinton is too, so much so that he was only partially interested in the interviews for this movie because there was a puzzle on the table in front of him, and goddamnit, would you just let the Prez finish his damn puzzle?

Only watch this if you’re a word nerd like me, or if you happen to be on that other nerd planet like the rest of these people. Then go home and do a crossword puzzle, and be glad you can’t finish it because you have a life.

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