It’s Puzzling! But Wordy Drama Entertains Up and Down

Patrick Creadon’s Wordplay, written by Mr. Creadon and Christine O’Malley, and produced by Ms. O’Malley, cheerfully and winningly celebrates the passionate practitioners of crossword puzzles, of whom there are an estimated 50 million in the United States. The film’s main focus is Will Shortz, the crossword-puzzle editor of The New York Times and the “Puzzle Master” on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition. Among the celebrity enthusiasts appearing in Wordplay are former President Bill Clinton, former Senator Bob Dole, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, the Indigo Girls, filmmaker Ken Burns and Yankee right-hand pitching star Mike Mussina. I mention Mr. Mussina’s right-handedness because I was struck by the left-handedness of Mr. Clinton and many of the other crossword players.

The fact that there is something inescapably eccentric and nerdy about the adherents to this particular addiction is never glossed over in the various testimonies. The resulting frankness about mental elitism is very much part of the film’s charm, though all the incessant cheering for The New York Times and NPR as the arbiters of the activity does constitute a sophisticated form of product placement.

Still, we learn from the film that the first crossword puzzles appeared in print in 1913, and that the geometrical symmetry of the black-and-white boxes was devised by Margaret Petherbridge Farrar, the first New York Times crossword editor, whose tenure ran from 1942 to 1967. (She was followed by Will Weng from 1967 to 1977, and Eugene T. Maleska from 1977 to 1993.) Mr. Shortz succeeded to the position upon the death of Mr. Maleska in 1993. Previously, Mr. Shortz had achieved a degree of underground fame as NPR’s “Puzzle Master” and had been regaling listeners with a variety of puzzles and word games on the Weekend Edition show since the series began in 1987. Mr. Shortz had been studying, creating and editing puzzles for his entire life, having graduated from Indiana University as the only person in the world with a degree in enigmatology (the study of puzzles), an area of concentration he created under the auspices of the university’s general-studies program.

I believe it was he or some other puzzle enthusiast in the film who joked that when he first recognized his life’s calling, he immediately resigned himself to a life of poverty. This led me to wonder just how much Mr. Shortz earns these days in his range of activities. No such information was provided in the film, for Mr. Shortz or anyone else. But this is usually the case not only in nonfiction films, but also in real life. People are comparatively more willing to reveal all the secrets of their sex lives than they are to provide the slightest clues to their financial standing.

As it happens, in my checkered employment past I worked for a Park Avenue South outfit as an editor of two crossword-puzzle magazines, Easy Crosswords and Quickie Crosswords. As their titles imply, these magazines published puzzles that Times addicts would have hooted at with derision. I never figured out how people were mentally and educationally challenged enough to prefer these low-I.Q. puzzles, and yet ambitious enough to bother with solving word puzzles in the first place. One fact I did realize at the time was that though the puzzles were ridiculously easy to solve, they were devilishly hard to construct.

For example, you couldn’t clean up a bothersome corner with some foreign phrase or arcane cultural tidbit. I noticed in the film that one of the clues was “Lyon Looker,” and the answer turned out to be l’oeil, the French word for “eye.” I couldn’t help wondering why “Lyon” and why “Looker.” These were the kinds of frustrations that got me off the Times crossword puzzles after a few years’ addiction, a period during which I was savvy enough to laugh at a clue that read wearily, in a spasm of self-criticism, “overworked sea eagle.” The answer—which I, of course, knew immediately—was “erne.” You can look it up in the dictionary if you don’t believe me. I wish I could forget it, but that is the way of all addictions: Their after-effects linger long after the disease has been cured.

The last part of Wordplay is centered on the 28th American Crossword Puzzle Tournament at the Marriott Hotel in Stamford, Conn., where the event has been held every March since 1978. This year, almost 500 competitors spent one long, snowy weekend amid a universe of white-and-black boxes to gain the title “Crossword Champ.” I must say that the person I was rooting for did not win, and the person I was rooting against did. Even so, the form of the competition itself was not as compelling as the sheer drama of contemplating the majestic English language as the battlefield in which knights of the dictionary waged war against each other. The magical animation of letters leaping into blank boxes across and down to form startling words and concepts almost transcends the contrasting personalities of the participants, young and old, male and female, amateur and professional.

I must confess that I had never heard of the Indigo Girls before Wordplay, in case you were wondering, but like everyone else in the film, they are legitimized and even ennobled by the nature of their obsession, which, to come right down to it, is best summed up in Hamlet’s “words, words, words.” As was to be expected, Jon Stewart provided the only professionally antic moment when he described his first meeting with Mr. Shortz as something of a pseudo-shock, but also as something symbolically appropriate: “When you imagine ‘crossword guy,’ you imagine he’s 13 or 14 inches tall … someone who doesn’t care to go more than five feet without his inhaler. And yet he’s a giant man.” Gone is Mr. Stewart’s mock fantasy of stealing Mr. Shortz’s lunch money at the eternal playground in which they both toil; gone also is the image of Mr. Shortz standing among the black-and-white boxes that that make up his imperial domain.

An election-night crossword puzzle in 1996 ingeniously provided both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bob Dole with hope of victory in the election by making both C-L-I-N-T-O-N and B-O-B-D-O-L-E the correct answer to the same across clues with a different set of down clues. Mr. Clinton and Mr. Dole, both puzzle addicts, were amused and intrigued by the ingenuity involved.

It’s hard to believe that an entertaining film could be made about crossword puzzles, but Mr. Creadon and Ms. O’Malley have managed the feat, with the help of a creative crew of artists and technicians in the realms of the visual, the verbal and the musical to bring mere letters and words to pulsating life. Even as an ex-addict, I enjoyed this excursion into a world I barely experienced in bygone days. One thing I did learn as an editor of underachieving crossword-puzzle magazines was that the best puzzle makers at this level came from prisons, where, I figured at the time, the inmates didn’t have anything much better to do with their time. But I did feel a sense of social benefaction when I sent the paltry checks to the prescribed prison addresses.

Real Romance

Peyton Reed’s The Break-Up, from a screenplay by Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender, based on a story by Vince Vaughn, Mr. Garelick and Mr. Lavender, more than lives up to its title by spending most of its time demonstrating why its two romantic leads shouldn’t live together rather than why they should. The complete lack of chemistry or even verbal rapport between Jennifer Aniston’s Brooke Meyers and Vince Vaughn’s Gary Grobowski makes the task of depicting disharmony ridiculously easy.

This is not to say that the movie is entirely without interest as a pathological symptom of the times in which we live. At the very least, it can be credited with having the courage of its pessimistic convictions by not springing a contrived happy ending on the audience. Even if you’re not as familiar with the great romantic-movie classics of the past as I am, with all their coupling, uncoupling and recoupling, you may still wonder why anyone ever thought that Ms. Aniston and Mr. Vaughn could be funny enough or touching enough to sustain the genre’s proud traditions, even if they had a better script and more inspired direction than they receive here. Forget about the Golden Age of Leo McCarey and Preston Sturges. Forget about Irene Dunne and Cary Grant. There are supporting players even in the cast of The Break-Up—people like Joey Lauren Adams, Ann-Margret, Vincent D’Onofrio and Judy Davis—who projected a kind of magical passion in more recent, if comparatively leaden, times.

Ms. Aniston’s Brooke and Mr. Vaughn’s Gary meet at Wrigley Field at a Chicago Cubs baseball game, at the conclusion of which he brazenly hijacks her away from her caricaturishly square date, who is attired in a visor and plaid shorts. I mention the Chicago Cubs because, later in the plot, one of the bones of contention is Brooke’s distaste for baseball and Gary’s for ballet as evening-out activities. So what is a supposed high-art maven like Brooke doing on a baseball date in the first place? At any rate, it turns out that she works in an art gallery, while he’s a tour guide on the buses that he and his two brothers operate in Chicago.

After their first frenzied meeting, Brooke and Gary are shown in a montage of wish-you-were-here photos in which they’re generally seen in the midst of varying groups of friends and relatives. So much for the courtship period. When we finally encounter them again in the flesh, so to speak, they are squabbling over some lemons that Brooke asked Gary to get for a dinner-party display. Only Gary forgot to get enough of them, and after a tiring day yakking away on a tourist bus, he is in no mood to rush out to get more lemons. We gather that this is not the first domestic argument they have had in the expensive condo they have purchased together as an unmarried live-in couple, with equal shares for both the purchase price and mortgage and maintenance payments. Needless to say, this situation could never have arisen in the Golden Age of the Production Code, when even married couples couldn’t sleep in the same bed and the sky would fall in if they actually shared an apartment without first getting married. Oh, how enlightened we have become.

The bad marital feelings persist through the dinner party, in which Brooke’s friends and relatives are shown to have little in common with Gary’s. There aren’t even any interesting possibilities of sexual intrigue or betrayal, just a succession of dead-end conversations between people who don’t seem to know the first thing about each other. Gary gets particularly irritated with Brooke’s suspiciously effeminate brother, Richard (John Michael Higgins), who is given to bursting out into ear-splitting song without any provocation. It seems that he leads an a cappella group and needs to practice whenever he can. His sonic aggressions against Gary, always accompanied by Brooke’s beaming approval, are good for a few laughs in the nasty pattern that persists throughout the film.

After dinner, a seemingly trivial argument over Gary not wanting to help Brooke wash and dry the dishes (he’d rather play a video game) leads inexorably to an early and yet final breakup. She tries halfheartedly to make him jealous by going out with other men; he tries belatedly to become a less self-absorbed human being. But nothing works, particularly after they sell the apartment and no longer live in proximity to each other.

One seemingly terminal problem with the casting of Ms. Aniston and Mr. Vaughn is that neither of their careers has featured characters who excelled at one-to-one relationships with the opposite sex. Mr. Vaughn has generally flourished as just “one of the guys” in predatory pursuit of the opposite sex, and Ms. Aniston began her own rise as one of a half-dozen upscale, slightly sassy sitcom Friends, and she has subsequently shined only in strangely oddball, underachieving parts in which she fails to connect with characters who might qualify as soul mates. There is a rumor that the two became an item while they were working on The Break-Up, and the movie itself seems to have become something of a hit. Perhaps someone can write them a more optimistic romance than this one, and then their screen personae will finally escape their solitary ruts.

It’s Puzzling! But Wordy Drama  Entertains Up and Down