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Rental Unit: "Wordplay"

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In recent years the documentary has gone from occasional sightings at the movie theater to outright infestation. Before that, suggesting one on crossword puzzles might have been a good joke. Not to Patrick Creadon, who has brought the world "Wordplay," an actual investigation of the crossword puzzle and its main proponent, the New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz.

The movie is part history lesson, part profile and part dramatic contest story. It looks at the development of the crossword up to its most passionate advocate, Shortz, puzzle-maker for The New York Times and founder of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, an annual gathering of the nation's crossword elite. (Look closely for Richmonder Bobbie Elam, who makes an appearance as a contestant.)

But along the way we learn some quaint facts. The film cites The New York Times as the standard-bearer of the crossword. It tells us how Margaret Farrar was enlisted in 1942 to edit the paper's daily puzzle, which she did until 1969. Shortz has edited it since 1993.

Shortz would seem to be an excellent choice for a documentary, since he is nothing if not unique. There are not many other (or are there any?) people in this country who can say they have a bona-fide college degree in puzzles. The diploma almost naturally led the tall, lanky puzzle master to his perch at The Times, where he has gained the admiration (and a few complaints) of countless fans.

"Wordplay" is like the film version of an innocuous New Yorker profile. The main puzzle with this project is not how it got made, but how it got theatrical distribution. "Wordplay" is interesting, as long as you're at least a casual puzzler. But for anyone else, it will come off as a bit anodyne. Documentaries that do nothing but cheer for their subjects don't earn the price of a movie ticket. The home theater is where this one belongs, where you can more comfortably lean your head back, close your eyes and claim you're just concentrating on a tough clue. (PG) ** S

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