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CROSSED-UP PORTRAIT

An expert says a movie portrayal of a crossword puzzlemaker is clueless.

Sandra Bullock plays a crossword puzzle constructor in her latest film, All About Steve, and since crossword constructor is a role I play in real life, I wondered: Would Bullock's character be portrayed as a bright, interesting person or a nerdy, annoying, divorced-from-reality brainiac?

Big surprise, it was Door No. 2.

Actually, I'm fine with that. I think it's legit for screenwriters to exaggerate when creating characters. I even think the film has a funny, darkly comic side most critics have overlooked.

Still, the story plays fast and loose with puzzle reality, and as a professional constructor I couldn't help noting some flaws:

1. Bullock's character, Mary, is "the crossword constructor for the Sacramento Herald," but few newspapers actually have their own constructors. Most buy their puzzles camera-ready from syndicates, just like the comics.

2. Mary apparently makes a modest living by supplying one small puzzle a week, but if she is paid the usual syndicated rate for a small puzzle, it's not enough to live on (which explains why she keeps pressing the editor to run her work daily).

3. Her editor says the paper can't afford to run a puzzle every day. But most feature editors would say they can't afford not to run a crossword every day - and usually two - because of the huge number of puzzle fans who buy the paper.

4. Once Mary becomes smitten with Steve, her next puzzle is literally all about him - every answer is about him and every clue contains his name. Cute as this is, it would be impossible to do. But the real issue is Mary is so self-absorbed she doesn't know how irresponsible this is. No one in the city can solve the puzzle.

5. When Mary gives a talk to elementary school kids on job appreciation day, the teacher introduces her in a condescending manner and the students ridicule her for not dating and not "having a life." This is just an unreal, mean little scene. Truth is, teachers love to have puzzlemakers talk to their classes because of the inherently fun aspect of puzzles and games.

6. In one scene Mary is seen in her room at what looks like her puzzlemaking work space - one of those tilted art tables that fashion illustrators draw on. In reality, she would need a desk, a computer and a lot of books.

7. Mary's mantra for making puzzles is "Is it solvable? Is it entertaining? Does it sparkle?" Yet we never see any of these traits in her work - we hardly see any of her work, period. As Alfred Hitchcock once said about North by Northwest, if you have a crop duster in a scene, it can't just buzz Cary Grant's head. It has to actually dust the crops.

Merl Reagle, a syndicated Sunday crossword creator, lives in Tampa.

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