When a film has a generic but pompous title such as “The Words,” beware.
This film sends up immediate warning flags when it turns out “The Words” is also the title of a novel written by the main character. From its opening shot, “The Words” has already doubled down on pretentiousness.
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“The Words” – the book and most of the movie – is about struggling author Rory (Bradley Cooper) who has written two earnest novels about the human condition but can’t get them published, probably because they are earnest novels about the human condition. James Patterson didn’t get rich writing those things.
Frustrated Rory fears he has let down his beautiful partner, Dora (ZoŽ Saldana), and dragged her into a life of near-poverty. Without explanation, they are able to afford a honeymoon in Paris, where Rory purchases an old leather valise in a second-hand shop.
Rory discovers a yellowed, manually typed manuscript hidden within the valise. Written by an unknown author shortly after World War II, the manuscript is an earnest tale of the human condition so pure, it makes Rory cry. After some token soul-searching, he submits the manuscript under his own name.
Rory becomes a literary sensation, which attracts the attention of the novel’s actual author, played by Jeremy Irons and identified only as The Old Man. No, that’s not at all pretentious.
Rory and Dora and The Old Man are characters in a novel written by Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) who narrates their story at a prestigious, sold-out author’s reading.
Authors usually stick to excerpts at such events, but Clay reads the first two-thirds of his novel. Judging by the book’s thickness, this would take four to five hours.
During breaks in his narration, Clay notices a stunning young woman (Olivia Wilde) who has entered the auditorium. She is a literary groupie obviously out to seduce Clay, although she may have an ulterior agenda.
In case you missed it, Clay is an author who has written a novel about an author who pretends to write a novel, who in turn hears how the Irons character actually wrote the novel. Phew! Would even Stephen King plumb such depths of authorly navel-gazing? Well, possibly, but his version would involve the undead at some point and that would make the story interesting.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, makes “The Words” interesting. The staid tone that writer-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal (who shared a “story by” credit on “Tron: Legacy”) establish at the outset dooms “The Words” to a fate of stately melodrama. This will not be a playful story, such as “Stranger Than Fiction” or “Ruby Sparks,” where literary characters interact with their creators. Nor will it be a sardonic satire of the publishing industry such as “Wonder Boys.”
Worse, the stakes start out mild and never increase. Cooper commits the crime of plagiarism, the theft of Irons’ intellect and emotions, but we get the sense he will not pay a greater price than his own guilty conscience. Tension does not mount.
Because this is a story about writers, characters spend much time typing and reading, narrating and listening. Besides napping, these are some of the least cinematic activities imaginable. Not even Antonio Calvache’s exquisite cinematography lifts these moments.
Perhaps to compensate, Calvache’s camera often lingers on the embraces of gorgeous couple Cooper and Saldana and later, in sepia-tinted flashbacks, on the equally gorgeous Ben Barnes (who plays the younger version of Irons) and French actress Nora Arnezeder.
These scenes all conspicuously resemble Vanity Fair photo shoots.
Like many movies about authors, “The Words” stresses that the writer’s work is a stunning literary achievement. Yet Quaid’s narration is filled with the dullest declarative sentences.
Stuff like, “He was the darling of the New York literary world” (spoken long after we have seen that Rory has become the darling of the New York literary world). And what self-respecting author would name a married couple Rory and Dora?
“The Words” aims to be a prestige picture, and it did attract an impressive supporting cast.
J.K. Simmons plays Cooper’s father and Zeljko Ivanek plays his publisher, while Ron Rifkin has a small role as a literary agent. Quaid does fine, and Irons, not unexpectedly, dominates the story’s second half. Cooper’s performance of woeful stares probably can be blamed on the direction, but Wilde is out of her class whenever asked to do more than gaze winsomely at Quaid.
Ultimately, the nesting doll structure of story within story amounts to nothing. The script hints at a stronger connection between Quaid’s and Cooper’s characters, but the execution is too subtle – or more likely, too unintentionally vague – to tie it all together. If the opening scene is a warning of pretentions, the final scene is a muddle of unfocused themes.
“The Words” desperately needed a rewrite.
• Jeffrey Westhoff writes movie reviews for the Northwest Herald. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.