“Talk about great letters,” swoons a crossword puzzler, with a tone more often used for girls or 1965 Thunderbirds. Geeky, yes, but he’s not alone. Every week 50 million Americans gnash their teeth over a six-letter word for “Botswanan problem,” so in the wake of 2002’s clever documentary Spellbound, the only real question was how long it would take ambitious filmmakers to mimic that smart-chic by zooming in on a few of them.
Director Patrick Creadon finagled what looks like 15 minutes of talking-head time with popular brains Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart and Ken Burns. Their bits are articulate but fluffy, though just as in An Inconvenient Truth, there’s those heart pangs at remembering that once upon a time, politicians were proud to be smart. These may be the biggest stars in the puzzling world, yet they’re not the brightest. While Stewart is still shouting “Bring it!” at his newspaper, humble men and women like Merl Reagle, Jon Delfin, Al Sanders and Miriam Raphael (who average three minutes a grid) have long since put down their pencils—nay, pens. Going where Marc Romano’s equally flimsy 2005 nonfiction book Crossworld went before, Creadon attempts to give narrative heft to his casual, chatty survey by prodding it towards the annual American Crossworld Puzzle Tournament, hosted by New York Times enigmatologist and editor Will Shwartz in Stamford, Connecticut.
But here’s a message to all wannabe documentarians: Enough is enough. In the post-Spellbound fallout, audiences have had Murderball (wheelchair basketball), Word Wars (Scrabble), Mad Hot Ballroom (dancing), Spit (poetry), Okie Noodling (bare-hands fishing), Karaoke Fever (take a guess), Pucker-Up (whistling), Almost Elvis (impersonators) and Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating (hot dogs, oysters, et. al). Unearthing a cult of obsessives who haven’t already been plundered has become as difficult as bushwhacking into a civilization that still lacks a McDonald’s. A quirky subgroup plus their yearly competition is not a formula for an Oscar nom, unless people can connect to and care about the film’s subjects—it’s empathy, not irony, which matters.
And while Creadon clearly likes crosswords, the distance between him and his subjects shows that he’s a novice at both people and puzzles, because he’s clueless about extracting the revealing, illuminating details. His questions must have been either too small (“How many years have you been doing this?”) or too grand (“What’s great about crosswords?”), because his by-definition articulate subjects coast by on banalities, self-depreciating wit and sports platitudes like brilliant and impregnable cruise ships.
A few momentary exceptions spike his bland punch. Editor Shwartz pulls out a stack of irate hate mail from his fellow lexicographers (“Toads don’t ‘hop!’” chides one); Reagle muses on the anagramic properties of “Dunkin’ Donuts;” 2001 crossword champion Ellen Ripstein smiles at a sweet memory of nerd vs. bully defiance, telling the camera “I had a boyfriend who would try to put me down, and I would say ‘Well, what are you the best in the country at?’”
Saving these fun scenes and a real shocker of a final round at the tournament, Creadon’s well-intentioned film is a five-letter word that starts with I: “Inept.”