Director : Brian Klugman & Lee Sternthal
Screenplay : Brian Klugman & Lee Sternthal
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Bradley Cooper (Rory Jansen), Jeremy Irons (The Old Man), Dennis Quaid (Clay Hammond), Zoe Saldana (Dora Jansen), Olivia Wilde (Daniella), Ben Barnes (Young Man), Nora Arnezeder (Celia), J.K. Simmons (Mr. Jansen), John Hannah (Richard Ford), Michael McKean (Nelson Wylie), James Babson (Dan Zuckerman), Ron Rifkin (Timothy Epstein), Brian Klugman (Jason Rosen), Liz Stauber (Camy Rosen)
In The Words, a somewhat muddled, yet consistently engaging morality tale about the thin line between art and life, Bradley Cooper plays Rory Jansen, a young man who is determined to make it as a writer, but is stymied by the limited market for his artistic aspirations (he claims to write “angry young man,” and a literary agent tells him his work is too “interior” and “subtle”). His reliably patient and understanding wife Dora (Zoe Saldana) continues to believe in him as he clacks away on his laptop deep into the night even though he must constantly borrow money for his father (J.K. Simmons) to pay the bills. He takes a job in the mailroom of a big New York publishing firm, hoping to make “contacts,” but after two years it appears his dreams are a dead end.
In an unexpected twist of fate, an old leather briefcase Dora buys him at an antique shop in Paris turns out to contain the shrinking, yellowing manuscript of an anonymous unpublished novel that Rory immediately recognizes as genius. Haunted by its power, he decides to transcribe it word for word into his computer, which Dora then mistakes for his own writing and encourages him to get it published. He does exactly that, and fame and fortune quickly follow as the novel is an immediate critical and commercial success, winning him the wealth and accolades he had so desperately sought, but could never achieve with his own work. And then, one day, he is confronted by his novel’s true author (Jeremy Irons). Now a grizzled old man saddled with his own broken life and unfulfilled dreams, he imparts to Rory the tragic background of how the book came to be written following his experiences as a GI in World War II and postwar expatriate in Paris, which are depicted in extensive sepia-toned flashbacks.
Thus, we have a story within a story, and in the film’s outermost narrative frame, the entirety of Rory’s story is being narrated by Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), a celebrated writer doing a reading of his new novel The Words for a packed audience. The fact that The Words tells Rory’s story means that either (1) Rory and his dilemma are fictional constructions or (2) Clay and Rory are the same character. Part of the film’s intrigue is watching the exact nature of the interconnections among the narrative’s three layers—Clay’s book reading, Rory’s tale of guilt-ridden plagiarism, and the old man’s recounting of how his book came to be written—unfold, revealing to what extent they are or are not real.
Cowriters/directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, who are making their directorial debut, have a canny sense of how to juggle the stories, but in the end the dive a little too deep into their own literary ambitions, drawing the film to a rather muddled conclusion that appears to, but doesn’t quite, answer all the questions (the ambiguity is more irritating than engaging). The narrative layer involving Clay Hammond is also saddled with the presence of Daniella (Olivia Wilde), a seductive Columbia graduate student who catches the author’s eye and gets herself invited back to his posh apartment for the sole purpose of providing a character to whom Clay can continue telling Rory’s story and later impart some of the film’s “big themes.” It’s a clumsy device that makes a certain level of narrative sense, but stumbles constantly against its own obvious functionality.
In a way, The Words is both too obvious and too muted for its own good, the clear result of first-time filmmakers trying to make something that looks “serious” and “literary.” It’s hard not to get drawn into the story, especially since all of the performances are quite good, particularly Jeremy Irons as the old man; he constantly strikes a note of wearied resignation that just barely disguises his decades of resentment. He is a genuine mystery, and his tragedy is worth thinking about after the film has ended. (On the negative side in terms of casting, the film fills too many minor roles with recognizable faces, including Michael McKean, Bob Balaban, and John Hannah, which is just distracting.) The film also looks very good; cinematographer Antonio Calvache, who previously worked with Todd Field on In the Bedroom (2003) and Little Children (2006), gives the images an edge and depth that heighten the material. Yet, in the end, it’s hard not to feel that Klugman and Sternthal paint a little too thick with their ambitious, but emotionally distanced cinematic appreciation of the mysterious nature of literary art. Those who live the writing life will certainly appreciate the film’s recognition of their struggles, but others will likely be left with little sense of what it’s all about.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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