Forming the central theme of The Words is the idea of success and the question of what price we’re willing to pay to achieve it. What if our biggest dreams far exceed our level of individual talent? In today’s look-at-me world of fame-grubbing reality shows and tiara-wearing toddlers, it seems we’re willing to do just about anything for even a disingenuous bite of the apple of fame. Even finding a lost manuscript and claiming it as our own doesn’t seem too far out of the realm of reality.
Just ask Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) a struggling writer dreaming of making it on the New York literary scene, what he’d do for success. He doesn’t shy from asking his enabling father (J.K. Simmons) for money to chase his dwindling dream, nor is he above publishing, as his own, the yellowed manuscript he finds hidden in the folds of an old beat-up leather satchel given as a gift from his loving wife Dora (Zoe Saldana). The story he retypes word-for-word onto his computer is that of an American soldier (Ben Barnes) and his French wife Celia (Nora Arnezeder) trying to raise a family in post-WWII Paris. He knows it’s much better than anything he could write but at the urging of his wife, he submits the manuscript to a publisher.
Upon the book’s rapid ascension to the top of the charts, Jansen soon finds himself being coddled in the lap of lavishing praise, with frequent shameless comparisons to Hemingway and many other literary greats. Only occasionally does he display a twinge of ethical turmoil.
Running concurrently is the story of Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), a successful writer who we meet as he orates selected passages of his newly published novel to a huge audience eager to lap up its cumbersome prose. He tells of a young author named Rory Jansen who struggles to get published until he finds a lost manuscript and claims it as his own. Yes, it’s a story within a story. Or, more accurately a movie within a book, within a story. Hammond wrote a book about Jansen, whose rise to fame is told within a frame of flashbacks. And then within that story breathes the third tale of the WWII soldier and his only true love.
Ironically, the story being told by co-writers/co-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal in The Words plays perfectly into their central focus as it clearly harbors grand visions of cinematic excellence, something it struggles to put on display, and suffers from a stunning lack of coherent storytelling ability. We’re often told, in flowery voice-over, of the emotional depth and impassioned struggles that befall the characters, but that’s never what we see on the screen. Multi-layered storytelling and seamless narration is a difficult technique to pull off. It doesn’t work in The Words, and as a result we always feel like the story is reaching for a much larger allegory than its drama is able to grasp. Too, the allusion to the idea that stealing someone’s book is like stealing their soul is a great idea around which to build a film. And it spends 90 minutes pounding that nail with a lead hammer. However, the notion that stealing a book is against the law isn’t mentioned once.
On the positive side, the actors all turn in resume-worthy performances, especially Irons aged up in 20 years of pat-cake as the old man whose script was pilfered. The film always works best when he’s on the screen. And Cooper is quite good too despite his hammy frozen-in-his-tracks ponderings beneath contrived voice-overs. But that’s likely more a by-product of the melodramatic script than a performance shortcoming.
It’s too bad Klugman and Sternthal missed with The Words. There’s a great story lurking in there somewhere beneath the ham-fisted prose. But a clunky narrative and a vision that exceeds ability stops this thing dead in its tracks. It’s always worth the effort to address the high price of fame and the ridiculous lengths people will go to get it. And while they hit that theme squarely, unfortunately their words ring hollow.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language and smoking.
Runtime: 96 mins.
Director: Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal
Writer: Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana; Jeremy Irons, Dennis Quaid
Tagline: There's more than one way to take a life.
Memorable Movie Quote: "Maybe now this should become a hobby, at least until you get your feet on the ground."
Distributor: CBS Films
Official Site: http://www.thewordsmovie.com
Release Date: September 7, 2012
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: No details available
Synopsis: After years of struggling, ambitious writer Rory Jansen (Cooper) finally achieves literary prominence when his first published novel becomes a smashing critical and commercial success. There's only one catch — he didn't write it. As his star continues to rise, Rory is suddenly confronted by the novel's true author who is about to teach Jensen that there are consequences for stealing another man's words.
No details yet available.