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'Wordplay' is near letter-perfect


Like the crossword puzzles it celebrates, the documentary Wordplay is a small triumph of infusing personality into formula. Director Patrick Creadon and producer Christine O'Malley mold their film around a handful of puzzle-solvers anticipating the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn. But even if you think you never want to see another fact-based or fictional feature that builds to an election, an academic test or a sports championship, Wordplay holds you with its craftiness, its playfulness and, best of all, the bounteous bonhomie of its puzzle-makers and crossword addicts.

The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is part pressure cooker, part homecoming weekend. It's a jamboree, complete with a talent show and a troubadour, a Little Rock, Ark., judge named Vic Fleming, who strums guitar and sings original songs such as "If You Don't Come Across (I'm Gonna Be Down)." Started to promote the opening of the Marriott Hotel in Stamford in 1978, it now attracts hundreds of players who return year after year. They come from all walks of life - one top contender, Al Sanders, is a project manager at Hewlett-Packard in Colorado, another, Jon Delfin, is a New York audition-room pianist - and many mark the crossroads of their lives with the time they spend in Stamford. As crossword constructor Merl Reagle quips, "It's a family reunion. It's the screwed-up crossword family getting together again."

Wordplay (IFC) A documentary featuring competitors in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, Will Shortz, Jon Stewart and Bill Clinton. Directed by Patrick Creadon. Rated PG. Time 85 minutes.

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