Unfortunately, the film suffers from many of the same "NPR"-ish trappings of a particularly elitist New York Times Sunday puzzle. Although I'm interested in its subject matter, I couldn't enjoy Wordplay because it falls into that same self-satisfied genre of cultural entertainment that as "The Daily Show," The Colbert Report," The New Yorker, Stone Reader, "A Prairie Home Companion," and They Might Be Giants. Jon Stewart himself actually appears in it, and moments after seeing him I joked that TMBG would surely crop up on the soundtrack and bingo. I mean, Jesus, was this the inaugural release from "NPR Films?"
Now, I'm no NPR hater per se. I do, however, object to the homogenized version of culture NPR represents, despite its best intentions to document and illustrate diverse cultures and issues (that is, to "consider all things"). For all its neutered political correctness, NPR is really about one thing: making educated white people feel smart, cultured, and urbane. Myself, I come more from the Will Hunting school that is, I believe only janitors can be geniuses. (?)
The critique of NPR might seem unrelated to Wordplay on its face, but I feel like the two share a similar missed opportunity. As NPR caters entirely to privileged intellectuals, Wordplay fails to show any divergent points of view or to explore the relationship between puzzle and solver. With the exception of a (white) baseball player, the subjects of the film are all white intellectuals and if they're the only ones who are up to the challenge of the fearsome NYT puzzle, that is because they're the only ones who care to remember the character names from Rigoletto. You'll never see a NYT clue like "Antonio Fargas's character in Foxy Brown."
And so, clearly the filmmakers did not feel it was necessary to delve into the role of the crossword in our society. Like, why do old people love doing crosswords? Sure, I look down my nose at those grocery store Dell crossword magazines like anyone else, but come on I'd bet more people do those puzzles than do the crosswords in the NYT. Wordplay does endeavor to explain crosswords as serving "human nature" in that they provide an outlet for the human need to figure things out. But the passion for crosswords is so specific that is, the Yanomamo are doing just fine without crosswords that the filmmakers of Wordplay just seem lazy for not digging deeper than asking some smart white people to really talk about crosswords.
All this said, I did enjoy many of the interviews. Bill Clinton, unsurprisingly, is the most articulate in explaining why crosswords are fun. I did not expect that the Indigo Girls (!) were crossword buffs but it's a bit if a stretch to use them to illustrate the relationship between creativity and puzzle solving (especially since the rest of the film reinforces that success in the crossword world is much more about memorization than creativity). Ken Burns proves to be as grandiose and overly sincere about crosswords as he was about The Civil War, Baseball, and The History of Bukkake (didn't Burns direct that one?).
The film works best when it sticks to the facts and avoids the pontification and/or leftist icon show-and-tell. The best bit is a little anecdote about Margaret Farrar, the godmother of the modern crossword but these types of details are too few and far between.
Wordplay's hamartia (yes!) is its attempt to pattern itself after the infinitely more charming Spellbound (and even Word Wars): we're taken to the National Crossword Championship (?) to watch the premier players go at it. It would have been fine to cover the championship event, but using it to drive the plot is a big mistake. As a result, the viewer is forced to endure long stretches watching little squares being filled out. The proverbial "watching grass grow" really would have been preferable. In the end, Wordplay comes off as a 20-minute idea that simply belabors the point, instead of what it could have been: a cinematic analogue to the cleverest of puzzles.
Ultimately, Wordplay is aimed at white intellectuals who need to gratify their nerdy elitism and social cluelessness. It's cute for a minute, then gradually pretty irritating. As one interviewee says, "Using Merle (Regan) on Tuesday is like using Barry Bonds in Little League." Now that is some universal truth, brother.