Wordplay is a documentary about crossword puzzles. I know, I know – that probably sounds like about as much fun as watching water ionize, but believe me, this will put smile after smile on your face and will make you laugh out loud more than a few times. The centerpiece of the film is coverage of the 2005 Crossword Puzzle Championship from Stamford, Connecticut. The finals are as compelling, heartbreaking, and thrilling as any sports competition you are likely to see – and I’m saying that as a HUGE sports fan! Along the way, we get to know some of the pre-contest favorites up close and personal, as well as a few notables in the crossword puzzle business, particularly Will Shortz, long-time crossword puzzle editor for the New York Times, who turns out to be a fascinatingly quirky fellow. We also get to visit with a selection of celebrities who turn out to be intense puzzle aficionados, including Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, the Indigo Girls, and Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina. I know some folks who NEVER go to see documentaries out of a knee-jerk assumption that . . . well, maybe that real life couldn’t possibly be as entertaining as some lavishly constructed Hollywood fantasy. I’m not putting down Hollywood fantasies by any means here – I can dig that stuff as much as the next guy. I am saying that this movie is a delightful piece of solid entertainment. And if you’ve ever attended any sort of gaming convention, or any sort of gathering of people united by their passion for a hobby, you will see types of people that will be very familiar to you.
The other movie I saw today was A Prairie Home Companion and once again, I found it entirely delightful. Let me begin by stating what this movie is not: It is not a slam-bang, shoot-em-up, rollicking action film. It is not a frantic, zany comedy – though it is most assuredly a comedy. It is not a special effects extravaganza – though it does include a genuine supernatural being among its characters (and that’s all I’ll say about that!).
It is an adaptation of the long running radio show of the same name. Most of the movie takes place on a single night, running in pretty close to real-time, and chronicling the supposed final performance of the radio show from an old theater in St. Paul, Minnesota. As with many of director Robert Altman’s movies, APHC utilizes a large cast of familiar faces. First and foremost is screenwriter Garrison Keillor, who plays a character named Garrison Keillor who is the host of the radio show. Among the standouts are Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep, who play the two remaining sisters of a one-time four sister singing group. Tomlin has mastered Altman’s semi-improvisational approach and I wouldn’t be surprised to see her come away with a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Other notables include Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as a guitar playing cowboy duet who decide to cut loose with some material of questionable taste near the end of the broadcast. I would be remiss if I did not also toss a bouquet to the impeccable Kevin Kline, who plays the role of the head of theater security as if he were a detective from an old film noir (his character’s name, for the record, is Guy Noir), although he plays the physical comedy as if he and Altman have intended his performance to be an homage to the films of Blake Edwards.
Let me take a moment here to discuss Lindsay Lohan. She plays the role of Lola, daughter of Meryl Streep’s character. Before tonight, I knew her only from her countless appearances in newspapers, magazines, and police blotters. So far as I know, I have never seen any of her film or TV appearances. I mention this because several twenty-somethings of my acquaintance have expressed the sentiment that they would avoid this movie specifically because of Ms. Lohan’s presence in it. They have gone on to offer their opinions regarding her being an untalented, insufferable pest. I have only this movie to go on, and I have this piece of news for my friends: Lindsay Lohan does just fine. No, she doesn’t steal the picture. Frankly if she did, there would be a problem because her role just isn’t that big. But she pretty much nails it for what it’s worth, though I would say that her singing ought to be about 10% better than it is for what her character is supposed to do. But that is a quibble on my part. If you’re insistent upon dissing her, perhaps you could attribute her apparent competence to Altman’s direction, but I’ve got no major problems with her here. That’s my two cents on the matter.
And to sum up, I heartily recommend either of these films, depending on what you’re in the mood for.