Movie Review: The Words
By Matthew Huntley
September 12, 2012
The Words tells three different stories, two of which occupy the same universe, although they are separated by about 65 years’ time. The first story is supposedly the only non-fiction one, at least from the film’s point of view. In it, Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) is a successful author who’s giving a reading of his latest novel, The Words, in front of the press and literary enthusiasts. As he recites his own pages, the film cuts to one of the stories contained in Hammond’s book (our second story). This follows Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), also an author, and his wife Dora (Zoe Saldana). It opens with Rory about to receive an award for his first published work. In these first few scenes, you can already sense the parallels between story one and story two.
Rory’s novel, we learn, was a long time coming. Five years earlier, he and Dora moved into a studio apartment in New York City and he spent years struggling as a writer. He resorted to borrowing money from his father (J.K. Simmons) as all of his manuscripts were either rejected or ignored. When he and Dora honeymoon in Paris, she buys him an antique leather briefcase and within it he finds a tragic, beautiful story typed on what is now fading, primrose paper with the fingerprints of the original writer still visible because of the typewriter’s black ink. Rory doesn’t know why, but he re-types the words into his own computer. Before he knows it, Dora has read the story and is astonished, even to the point of shedding tears. She begs Rory to submit it to a publisher, not knowing the words don’t belong to her husband.
After the novel becomes an overwhelming critical and commercial success, Rory is paid a visit by an old, white-haired man, an Englishman (Jeremy Irons), who gives the “pissant kid” a chance to confess but finally just comes out and says it: it’s his story. This leads to the film’s third narrative, which is really a flashback of the second, in which the old man reminisces how he came to write such a fascinating and absorbing piece of literature. I won’t spoil the old man’s story by giving away details, but his is the most poignant.
The way all three stories in The Words unfold, and how they mirror one another in regards to their themes of love, guilt and morality, may make the collective film seem overly manipulative, wishy-washy and something that probably would have made a better book than movie (in print, these types of subjects tend to feel less exaggerated and melodramatic). But that’s not to say the film is without virtues. Yes, it is manipulative, as all films are, and all three stories, in the end, don’t bear much consequence to the audience since their messages and symbolism are so flagrant and we’ve heard them all before, but the underlying drama and performances keep it afloat. The film is cunning, sure, but it’s concise and holds our attention.
Despite the forced sentimentality, each story has its fair share of emotion and intrigue that make it watchable. Writer-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal are not at all subtle with their storytelling, but even so, their approach comes off as passionate rather than smug and it’s clear what they wanted to say with their film, probably too clear. I appreciated that they didn’t take their themes lightly, even if they are obvious.
When I mentioned the performances, I was mostly referring to Bradley Cooper, who shows here he’s maturing as an actor. He’s patient, contemplative and focused on-screen, and although this particular film will likely be forgotten in the long run of his career, it proves Cooper has a range outside of mainstream projects like The Hangover films and Limitless. Jeremy Irons is also fine as the aged, regretful man. Granted, it’s a role Irons could have played standing on his head, but he’s still effective.
One avenue of the screenplay that feels underdeveloped and tangential involves the Quaid character and a writing student played by Olivia Wilde. She wants to interview him and there’s a blatant sexual undertone to their conversations. For most of the film, we wonder where their scenes are taking us or what purpose they serve. By the end of the film, we no longer wonder, but it’s obvious Wilde’s character was merely tacked on to make the point that art sometimes imitates life. This is something we could have surmised on our own, so her character should have either been scrapped altogether or re-written as a fully realized person instead of a device.
The Words is not high art, but it’s rhythmic and engaging, so long as you don’t expect to think about it too much afterward. The movie pretty much does all our thinking for us, but even so, it’s well-made and performed enough so that we still find ourselves responding to the drama and characters. Because of that, it works as light and breezy entertainment.