If you’ve ever wondered what a Charlie Kaufman script written for the Hallmark Movie Channel would be like, you are in for a treat. The Words, the directorial debut from Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, is an ambitious narrative that will entertain audiences with its eagle-like approach to storytelling. The film swoops and dives, displaying an impressive majesty that inspires the impression that the movie is something deeper, more meaningful that the usual theater fare. Shoot down the eagle/film and try to cook it for dinner, though, and you’ll find that the meat is lean and tasteless and the bones hollow.
Bradley Cooper stars as Rory Jansen, a character in a book written by Clay Hammond, a beloved author played by Dennis Quaid, a distinguished actor who will gross you the heck out when he attempts heavy petting and a make-out session with a character played by Olivia Wilde. Gross, Quaid. Gross.
As the film begins, Hammond is performing a public reading of his latest novel, “The Words.” The novel details the unearned rise of Rory Jansen, a writer who finds success only after he steals a long-forgotten manuscript. Discovering the manuscript tucked away in a Parisian antique shop, Jansen is smitten with the mystery author’s words and, when a small misunderstanding turns into a whirlwind of lies, Jansen lets the truth run away. The manuscript is mistaken as something Jansen wrote and, instead of correcting the mistake, Jansen encourages it and feeds the fire of deceit – publishing it as his own. In doing so, Jansen finds the success and fame he so desperately was craving for his life and, with his loving wife (Zoe Saldana) at his side, the young author settles in for what seems to be a perfect life. Unfortunately, the past catches up with Jansen when the manuscript’s original author, now an elderly man played by Jeremy Irons, confronts the thief. From there, the story cracks open the Russian nesting doll that is its gimmick to find another tale – that of the Old Man, who recounts to Jansen of how, as a young soldier in Paris after World War II, he fell in love, wrote a book and lost both his novel and his wife in a domino line of tragic clichés.
A story within a story within a story, The Words is certainly ambitious in its blind faith that audiences will remain attentive to the various layers of the story and retain their patience as the overall structure of the film is slowly peeled away to get to the movie’s larger themes and questions. Unfortunately, by the time Klugman and Sternthal have “Inceptioned” the hell out of the movie’s plot, there is little room for anything deeper than base sentimentality and anything truly important that the film had to say is rushed in a flurry of emotional confrontations between Hammond and Wilde, who plays a graduate student that suspects Hammond has a lot more in common than Jansen than he may be letting on.
That said, the film will find its audience in those that aren’t looking for tough questions about the morality of plagiarism. No, the paperback-novel-clutching, Croc-shoe-wearing, faux-arthouse-film-loving audiences that will eat up The Words like so much desert from The Cheesecake Factory will be swept up in the film’s scenic landscapes and captivating performances. So what if the film rushes through its third act as if it had a previous engagement to get to? Doesn’t Bradley Cooper look so handsome?
Cooper is his usual charismatic self. He works the camera like a pro and even manages to drum up a fair amount of audience sympathy – despite the fact that the actor plays a damn, dirty plagiarist. It’s not a particularly showy performance but it gets the job done. Jeremy Irons, on the other hand, is all about the show. The actor spends the film chewing delightfully through his rich, meaty dialogue. Embracing the half-crazed old man image his character sports like a winter coat, Irons is practically auditioning for the Doc Brown role in the inevitable Back to the Future remake/reboot. You’ll half expect a mention of a flux capacitor to slip out between the actor’s growled deliveries of stoic threats and half-hearted humorous attempts at self-pity. Marty!
For the filming of The Words, Montreal doubled as both New York and Paris but – in the end – neither location was properly represented. Too often the film’s worlds bled together thanks to poor location scouting – giving the film the look of a cheaply shot television movie. You can’t just slap a filter onto your film, cue up an orchestra heavy on string instruments and allow post-production to do the heavy lifting when it comes to transporting an audience through a flashback but that is exactly what the filmmakers attempted with The Words.
This shooting location misfire perfectly embodies the disappointing film that The Words ended up being. Too little time was spent on the details and not enough of a balance was given to the trio of stories’. There is literally a plot point in the third act that allows Quaid’s character to rush through his narration and messily wrap up what should have been the most interesting part of the film – the question of what an plagiarist does after he gets caught.
The film lovingly sets up the world within a world of Rory Jansen but, in an effort to wrap things up, rushes through any emotional resolution to be found within its conclusion. And as for The Old Man’s tale or Clay Hammond’s wraparound story, those are barely an afterthought to the main thrust of the film. This is Cooper’s vehicle and any scene that does not feature the handsome actor’s smiling mug is given the short shrift.
Director: Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal Writer: Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal Notable Cast: Bradley Cooper, Olivia Wilde, Zoe Saldana, Jeremy Irons, Ben Barnes and Dennis Quaid
Robert Saucedo is an avid movie watcher with seriously poor sleeping habits. The Mikey from Life cereal of film fans, Robert will watch just about anything — good, bad or ugly. He has written about film for newspapers, radio and online for the last 10 years. This has taken a toll on his sanity — of that you can be sure. Follow him on Twitter at @robsaucedo2500.