“He loved her. He loved New York. But at night, when the city was finally quiet, he wrote.”
When a wannabe writer stumbles upon an old, abandoned manuscript, he is confronted with a decision that will alter his life, forever.
The Words is the 2012 romantic drama directed by Brian Klugman starring Bradley Cooper as Rory, Zoe Saldana as Dora, Olivia Wilde as Daniella, Jeremy Irons as the Old Man, and Dennis Quaid as Clay Hammond. The Words also stars one of my favorite character actors, J.K. Simmons, as Rory’s father.
I purposely give myself days to mull over The Words before I invariably decide to post on the film. The reason for which is two-fold. One: the main character is a writer who, when faced with the limitations of his abilities, makes a decision to plagiarize another writer’s work. And, two: I’m not sure my perception of the film, it’s central themes, is aligned with the general public. That The Words premiered at the famed Sundance Film Festival in January of 2012 and received a mixed reception helps solidify my resolve.
The Words is a jumble of emotion, shaky from the foundation on up to the film’s ambiguous ending. And it’s a shame, too. With a cast this good, it’s hard to believe this is the best they could do.
Told in a non-linear, Inception-esque format, The Words is a story within a story within a story. The master of the domain being Clay Hammond (Quaid), a well-known (read: wealthy/successful) writer who begins the film with a two-part public reading of his new work, “The Words”.
You’ve probably already guessed that Hammond’s book is the story of a young, struggling writer named Rory (Cooper), who stumbles upon an unpublished, forgotten manuscript. Tucked away in a secret compartment of a beautifully aged briefcase his wife buys for him while the two are honeymooning in Paris, Rory falls in love with the story. He can’t stop thinking about it. His obsession leads him to retype the manuscript on his laptop so he can feel the words pass through him.
When his young wife, Dora (Saldana), is harmlessly (yeah, right) looking through Rory’s laptop she finds, and reads, the manuscript – mistaking it for Rory’s work.
The third element of the story within a story within a story is that Rory has unwittingly stolen the work of a man who is very much still alive. The kicker? It turns out the work is not-so-much fictional, but based on the Old Man’s (Irons) real life experiences following World War II when, as a young man, he was stationed in Paris. The book was the Old Man’s way of dealing with the death of his infant daughter and the disintegration of his marriage to a woman he loves very much.
So, if you’re keeping score – The Words is a story about three writers, all in different stages of their careers. There’s the Old Man whose one and only work is a masterpiece, forgotten and lost to the world. There’s Rory, the struggling novelist whose work is too “arty” for the mass market. And there’s Clay, a huge commercial and critical success. For me, a “struggling” novelist in my own right, this feels like it should be very fertile ground.
With the story elements in place, and all of the primary characters introduced, why then, does the film fail for this reviewer?
I’m a fan of Cooper, whose performance in Silver Linings Playbook was among my favorites in 2012. But, in The Words, he doesn’t ring true to me as Rory, the impassioned writer so in love with the written word that he will do anything – anything – to have his work known. I found myself constantly distracted by Cooper’s choice to convey the desire and desperation of his character through wet eyes and an open mouth. To me, I spent the film thinking Rory was insipid. I could barely stand to watch him.
Irons and Quaid are equally unconvincing. A fact which pains me in its very expression. Irons, for whom I hold only the deepest respect as an artist, seems to be overplaying his role with an accent that slips in and out. And Quaid…? Let’s say he feels too familiar in the role.
And maybe we shouldn’t get started on the female characters in The Words, all of whom are deeply committed (until they’re not) in the successes and failures of the men in their lives – having, presumably no lives of their own from which to draw energy, contentment, and fulfillment as a human being. This, alone, makes the film feel outdated and out of touch.
In the end, I have no sympathy for any of the characters, especially Rory, who – instead of facing his limitations, as his father suggests – turns instead to theft. And why, then, should I spend the rest of the film watching him struggle with the decision he’s made? It’s uncomfortable, unenjoyable, and I’m not entertained.
The Words wants to be a grand film, with an intricately interwoven story that takes its audience through the decades. It wants to be a film about choice, failure, dreams, hope, ambition, and love. What it ends up being is an exposition about morality with a bottom line that excuses unethical behavior as long as no one knows and you don’t get caught.
Official site: The Words
IMDb: The Words
Wiki: The Words
Is The Words Rotten or Fresh?