It may not be an "iconic manifestation of civilization," as documentarian Ken Burns proclaims, but the New York Times crossword puzzle is undoubtedly an institution. Printed every day for the past 64 years, the puzzle draws politicians, working stiffs, comedians, musicians, and homemakers across the country -- anybody who, to paraphrase one champion puzzler, sees blank spaces and wants to fill them in. In Wordplay, director Patrick Creadon seeks to unpack the phenomenon, bringing his story to a climax at the 28th Annual Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Connecticut, where the nation's best puzzlers duke it out for . . . four thousand bucks. And does anybody care?
Maybe. Spellbound, 2003's blazing examination of the National Spelling Bee, used that competition to zero in on issues of race, class, adolescence, immigration, and parenting in America. In 2004, Word Wars -- a sharp and witty film languishing in grievous obscurity -- did the same thing with Scrabble. Wordplay could have taken the same tack, but mostly it's just a sweet and lightly funny piece of highbrow piffle, as enjoyable as it is forgettable. There's no harm done, but there's not much else either.
Here's a typical quote from Will Shortz, puzzle editor of The Times and puzzle master at NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday: "I'm blessed to work for the two greatest news organizations in the country." Lovely? Sure. Dramatic? Nope. Shortz is a man in love with his job, one of those people who apparently issued from the womb with a passion and made that passion his career. You can't wish him anything but well, and yet . . . a four-letter word for "boring" comes to mind.
Far more lively are the solvers and contestants, earnest regular folk with an amusingly myopic commitment to words and letters. "I've always been intrigued by the letter Q," says Trip Payne, one of the nation's top solvers. Tyler Hinman, a 20-year-old who solves next to a giant beer banner in his frat house, confesses that his emotional involvement occasionally departs from sanity. "I tend to get a little . . . I guess 'psychotic' is the word." In this way, Creadon dips his toe into the seemingly placid pools of the contestants' personal lives, but never deep enough. (Payne had to move to Florida, because his life had become unhealthily dominated by puzzle-solving. Huh? Now there's a story worth pursuing.)
Creadon's strengths lie in breadth rather than depth -- and in a cunning power to convince major celebrities to appear in his movie. Bill Clinton muses on the nature of learning, and a manic Jon Stewart goofs amiably for the camera. But save for Stewart's shenanigans, there's just not much energy here. Even the mild fervor at the national competition is mediated by the civility of its participants. This isn't an insurmountable conflict-killer, of course -- but you can't help but wish that at least one of them would crack.