The beauty of Wordplay is its ready-made simplicity as a competition documentary. Take an obscure sport that has an annual championship, follow a few key players up to the big match, and take the film to a nail-biting finale. That formula worked with spelling bees in Spellbound, wheelchair rugby in Murderball and ballroom dancing in Mad Hot Ballroom.
For a filmmaker, an arcane sporting event is perfect because the competitors are so accessible. The 10-year-old spelling whizzes don’t hide behind agents or answer all questions with a variation of “I just want to step up and take it to the next level.” Meanwhile, the indie filmmaker benefits from the drama that competition produces, without having to fight with ESPN for the best camera angles or the broadcast rights.
Patrick Creadon’s Wordplay continues the formula laid down by its successful forebears without developing it significantly. It’s simply an entertaining film that’s perhaps most memorable for an unfortunate final round error, and the presence of Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, the Indigo Girls and baseball star Mike Mussina. All of these celebrities unwind with the New York Times daily crossword puzzle (and it is the Times puzzle everyone does: Jon Stewart admits to occasionally doing the USA Today in a hotel room but “I don’t feel good about myself”).
In addition to its celebrity testifiers, Wordplay introduces us to the stars of the annual crossword tournament in Stamford, Conn., which has taken place every year since 1978 under the benign stewardship of Will Shortz, editor of the Times puzzle, a man regarded with a mixture of reverence and familiarity by the hundreds who show up for the competition. Most of the contestants have been coming to Stamford for years, but this year there is a young phenom named Tyler Hinman, a 20-year-old who makes up for his relative lack of accumulated information with a prodigious ability to recognize patterns and fill in boxes. “That’s just how I’m wired,” he says with a shrug. Among the veteran stars are Trip Payne, a gay puzzlemaker in St. Petersburg, Fla.; Ellen Ripstein, a nerd’s nerd from New York City; and Al Sanders, a genial engineer, family man and perennial tournament bridesmaid from Colorado. While all are engaging and sometimes quirky, these contestants don’t have the same kinds of vulnerabilities that have accompanied the stars of the other competition docs.
Shortz, the man who makes the competition possible, keeps a curious distance in this film. He founded the crossword tournament in 1978 and in 1993 he took over the puzzle editorship at the Times. He’s genial and good-humored, but like some of the contestants, he’s also monkish and remote. The most interesting insights come from Daniel Okrent, former public editor for the Times, who tells us that a mere classical education is no preparation for crossword stardom. Mathematicians and musicians, he tells us, are the best at the puzzles because their brains are trained to recognize and complete patterns.
Wordplay isn’t as memorable as other films of its genre. In contrast to the physical hurdles faced by the athletes of Murderball, the social discomfort of the immigrant kids of Spellbound, and the class tensions of Mad Hot Ballroom, Wordplay is a conflict-free narrative about a group of well-educated adults who are really good at solving puzzles. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but nothing terribly exceptional either.
I find myself equivocating about The Lost City, Andy Garcia’s impressive feature directing debut. On the one hand, his film is a rapturously sprawling account of the sights and sounds of pre-revolutionary Cuba, with mambos, rumbas, boleros and chachachas crowding the visual field and the soundtrack. But on the other hand, the film seems simplistic in its attack on Fidel Castro’s revolution and disingenuous in its indifference to the widespread poverty that inspired the uprising against the hated Batista. Despite the title of the film, Havana is only “lost” to the affluent people who fled in the aftermath of the revolution. For the millions who continue to live there, the city is very much alive, even if most are just as poor as they were before the revolution.
But it would be unfair to the genuine achievements of Garcia’s film to dismiss it as red meat for the Florida expatriate community. Garcia, who is Cuban-American, has spent the better part of two decades trying to make this film, which he has adapted from the modernist novel Tres Tristes Tigres by G. Cabrera Infante. Infante himself was initially highly sympathetic to the revolution–his parents helped found the Cuban Communist Party–but by 1966 he had fallen out with Castro and fled into European exile.
Garcia himself didn’t live in Cuba for long and has few memories of the place. The actor-turned-director casts himself as Fico Fellove, a nightclub owner whose club El Tropico is modeled on the famous Tropicana. As such, Fico is the Cuban counterpart to Bogart’s famously apolitical Rick Blaine in Casablanca, but he has two revolution-minded brothers who get caught up in Castro’s advancing armies. Unfortunately, the scenes of political strife within the Fellove clan are rarely convincing–Garcia’s primary interest in the film seems to be recapturing the lost elegance and decadence of the time. Still, as much as the film flatters and privileges the expat point of view, Garcia’s depiction of Ernesto “Che” Guevara (played by lookalike actor Jsu Garcia) as a vicious, swaggering ideologue is a welcome respite from the sentimentalized neo-Jesus we’ve seen in The Motorcycle Diaries and elsewhere.
The Lost City is nothing if not indebted to its influences. In addition to Casablanca, the film bears evidence of a close study of The Godfather: Part II, right down to the presence of original gangsta Meyer Lansky (lightly played by Dustin Hoffman, who knows he’s no match for Lee Strasberg’s turn as Hyman Roth in Godfather: Part II). In The Lost City, Fico even has a sort of consigliere in the character of Bill Murray’s unnamed writer. Murray’s role is a literary conceit, and a damned good one–his droll fool mocks the earnestness on all sides. Those who are exasperated by his recent forays into deadpan passivity will be pleased to see the old snide Murray is still in fighting trim.
Composed of equal parts elegance and clunkiness, The Lost City is self-indulgently long at 142 minutes, and its scenes of domestic intimacy fail to rise above television clichés. Garcia’s strengths are in the big picture, sweeping vistas of the last flowering of a doomed culture. Most notable is a spectacular montage of an assassination attempt on Batista in the presidential palace. Garcia’s willingness to blend the conventions of music, dance, chase scenes and cinematic crosscutting puts scores of allegedly professional Hollywood directors to shame.
Both films open Friday in select theaters.