Nerd Heaven

‘WORDPLAY' & ‘A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION'

Something odd happened in film theaters this summer: National Public Radio went to the movies. Or, at any rate, some of its stars did.

Will Shortz, the crossword-puzzle editor of the New York Times and weekly Puzzlemaster on NPR’s Sunday Weekend Edition, is featured in the documentary Wordplay, though Shortz is less the star of the film than its conduit. Through him we enter the world of those bright and amiable nerds (they embrace the epithet) who not only do crossword puzzles but obsess over them and enter national competitions, one of which provides this movie’s climax.

Wordplay itself is bright and amiable, but I believe that only a puzzle addict could find it compelling. Part of the problem is the relationship between the camera and the solving of crosswords. There isn’t any. There is virtually nothing for the camera to watch in the activity itself. As one of the tournament players puts it, when you compete you’re struggling with something in your mind with no one looking over your shoulder. Occasionally the camera does look over a shoulder, but to no avail; all we see is a pencil poised over paper. The filmmakers sometimes enlarge the puzzle so that it fills the screen. This makes for a pretty graphic but doesn’t increase the suspense or the human interest. By contrast, think of the spelling-bee kids in Spellbound. The emotions flitting across their faces as they struggle with esoteric words made...

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.