A Writer with Nothing to Write, Everything to Claim
Sometimes it’s easy to spot a film whose ambition exceeds its execution. In the case of The Words, which hovers over heavy thematics and ethical implications, you don’t need to search far. In fact, you begin hoping that you’ve overlooked something, that there might be more to its calculated timeframes and predictable mannerisms. For a film with this title, it’s disappointing how easy it is to read into things.
Unfortunately, Bradley Cooper cannot resurrect its lackluster appeal. Beyond his inane antics and machismo in Hangover-A-Team romps, his more cerebral side, like his presence in Limitless has been a pleasant dichotomy. Cooper, who continues his Dr. Jeckyll half in this film, enlisted friends Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal to write and direct. The script lacks intended depth and pull but the imagery succeeds aesthetically and emotionally. In this case, visuality must substitute substance, which for a film about the written word is a daunting task.
Cooper plays Rory Jansen, a struggling (aren’t they all) novelist in a rather furnished Manhattan apartment with his wife Dora (Zoe Saldana in another strong supporting role). He continuously finds rejection from publishers, slowly diminishing his sense of worth with each unfortunate responsorial letter. But this, we find in the film’s first scene, is not reality, or is it? From what we can tell, this is a secular, written world, coming to life from its author’s lips -Clay Hammond’s (Dennis Quaid)- at his book reading. In front of a large audience, he reads, taking us back into Rory’s life and the moral consequences every writer has the possibility of facing.
In the middle of the couple’s honeymoon, Rory finds an old briefcase, nearly hidden in a Paris antique store. Its value isn’t in its rustic appeal, it’s what’s inside: an old manuscript. He reads it straight through, glued to every page, every word. It is a masterpiece, and with no title, no name attached, it could be his, enabling the film’s chief dilemma. But he claims it as his own, and with his self-assured accreditation, rises to fame and fortune, name in bookstore windows and coffee shop tables, his unchallenged guilt free of blemish.
Clay’s crisp words, however, filter through at the beginning and ends of chapters, mentioning an old man by Rory’s home that is obviously building to become a key component- and I’m not spoiling anything when I say this- obviously the unknown writer responsible for this master work. Played by Jeremy Irons, there is wise, spirited life in this cheated man who confronts Rory in the park and drops the writer’s bomb. Irons has such demanding presence, haunting his work’s famed author while divulging his own story. He speaks of his manuscript- forgotten on a train- about 1950s post-war love and subsequent heartbreak, displayed again as another story within a story, this time more compact and expressive about another writer Ben Barnes.
It’s here the tone changes in the face of a major ethical mishap, but nothing feels damaging as the smoldering shockwave of a broken moral compass should. The old man drags out his virtues to Rory, who crumbles in shame and pity, both of which cannot be remedied by anyone around him. How devastating it must feel as a writer to accept failure, find false success, and by newfound reputation alone, make one’s own, sub par novels passable. I wish I could have felt more of his devastation.
This is not a story of giving up, this is a story of giving in. It is also a story of taking responsibility. If only the filmmakers gave us an understanding of the power of the written word. Besides the bland, foundational sentences that slowly meander from Clay’s mouth, we never hear prose from Rory’s plagiarism. To feel the love and loss from the old man, to experience the prestige and then shame felt from Rory, shouldn’t we read at least a little of what everyone else in this fictional world has?
Back in the contemporary, real world, a young woman (Olivia Wilde) mysteriously lingers after the book reading and accompanies Clay home to discuss his book. Her character is symptomatic of the film’s ineffability, its struggle to make twists, which drop with regularity, impactful. Who is this woman and why does she stalk this seemingly ordinary writer? Most of these questions are left unanswered, and oftentimes, they’re the wrong ones being asked.