Sep 07, 2012
The Words is the cinematic equivalent of a sentimental airport novel. It’s someone’s baby, a work forged of sweat and blood as all creative ventures are, but just as our protagonist Rory discovers, that’s not always enough. Although the movie would like to stir up conversation about fact and fiction, creativity and ownership, it’s full of flimsy contrivances and sappiness that makes a movie (or a novel) thin and forgettable.
The Words tries to be clever by wrapping a story within a story within a story, but it’s ultimately undermined by underdeveloped characters and sentimental trifles. Dennis Quaid plays a successful author, Clay Hammond, who kicks the movie off by reading from his new book, The Words, to a packed house of enthusiastic fans and colleagues. He’s being pursued by a gorgeous MFA student named Danielle (Olivia Wilde) who’s interested in Clay’s attention, but almost as if she could absorb some of his supposed brilliance through osmosis (or, you know, sex). The book he’s reading from is about Rory Jensen, a floundering writer played by Bradley Cooper with every ounce of emotional depth the Hangover star can muster. Despite his lovely and eternally supportive wife Dora (Zoe Saldana), Rory can’t help but feel ripped off by life. He’s paying his dues writing all night and working at a publishing house in the mail room all day, but he can’t get anywhere with his work. It’s just not marketable, it’s too internal, people wouldn’t get it.
Rory is so misunderstood, and his life sucks. That is, until he finds a lost manuscript in a leather briefcase that he and Dora bought on their Paris honeymoon. It’s genius, everyone loves it, and he’s living large. When an old man, who is simply referred to as ”The Old Man” (played by Jeremy Irons in some sort of aging make-up that makes him look like his face is slowing melting like candle wax) appears to claim his book, Rory (and the audience) is forced to listen to another story. We’re sucked into post-war Paris and The Old Man’s tragic life.
Most of The Words is told through various narrators, which further undercuts the already underdeveloped characters. We’re not given much to go on when it comes to Rory and why he writes, or even why Dora is so crazy about him that she jumps his bones when he’s trying to work on his epic novel. There’s little indication what she does other than be supportive of Rory’s work, even when he’s being a giant putz and telling her that nothing in his life is right. He is what one might imagine most petulant, overly intelligent, successful male writers are like in real life, but without any of the actual meat and blood to make him worthy of Dora’s or our interest. While The Old Man’s story is interesting, it is fairly vacuous. Irons shows a little bite here and there, but he’s your stock Sad Old Lonely Man character, who chain smokes and feeds the birds in the park and coughs with a certain ominous foreshadowing. Last but not least, Clay is supposed to be the mastermind behind all this, bringing up questions of fact versus fiction and what we give up to become artists and creators and how that affects our relationships with everyone around us. While these are all ultimately unanswerable questions, Clay and his fictional doppelgangers aren’t deep enough to really hazard a guess. The women they talk to are ciphers, muses, or pushovers.
This is the directorial debut of Lee Sternthal and Brian Klugman, who also wrote the script together. (They’re previous credits include TRON: Legacy.) The cinematography isn’t particularly a stand out, although giving the scenes set in the ’40s a sort of sepia tint works well, if a little too on the nose. The score is too intrusive and self-important; it tries entirely too hard to make the audience feel things that aren’t in the movie itself. The Words is the sort of movie you’d watch on an airplane or on cable some Sunday afternoon. The characters’ moral quandaries, in the end, don’t say anything at all.