The Words is a kooky movie, full of nutty, questionable narrative tricks, and it suffers from the unfortunate quality of being a film about a writer — or, more accurately, several writers — that is occasionally tackily written. But it’s also overlapped with an atmosphere of impending doom, aided immensely by the forcefully woeful accents of Marcelo Zarvos’s excellent score. This vow of seriousness, made by the first-time filmmaking team of Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, is what I like best about The Words. It produces a sensation that’s very foreign to the kinds of wide-released American movies we usually get around this late-summer juncture.
The Words begins with Dennis Quaid, who plays a famous author named Clayton Hammond. He is on his way to a reading of his latest published work, which shares its title with the film. Quaid is uneasy at first, as the role, which only sporadically shows him reading from the book, mostly requires him to flirt with the much-younger Olivia Wilde, who plays an awestruck graduate student. But as the film goes on, Quaid’s agitation builds to an absorbing ambiguity. It’s certainly possible to dismiss his contribution as a cheap storytelling device, but I appreciated the way it enhanced the overall atmosphere.
The story of Clayton Hammond’s novel takes up the bulk of The Words, and is brought to acting life by Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, and Jeremy Irons. The protagonist is Rory Jansen (Cooper), an aspiring writer whose literary anonymity has made it increasingly difficult for him to support the love of his life, Dora (Saldana). There is a terrific scene early in the film in which Jansen’s hard-working father (the always sublime J.K. Simmons) scolds him a bit before lending him some more money. Simmons is so good in roles like this, because he makes it clear that his chewing-out of his son isn’t rooted in bitterness. Rather, it simply comes from a genuine source of life experience.
While honeymooning in Paris, Rory and Dora stumble across an antiques shop, and a distinguished, worn-down valise catches their eye. Dora buys it for him, and as Rory later begins to transfer his work into the newly-purchased writerly briefcase, he discovers an old manuscript tucked within the valise’s front pocket. Rory starts reading the pages, can’t put them down, and is in fact so inspired that he decides to retype every single word of it onto his computer. The movie’s central moral dilemma arrives moments after, when Dora mistakes the remarkable piece of literature for Rory’s own, and he subsequently fails to alert her that she’s mistaken.
With the help of his boss (Zeljko Ivanek), the book gets published immediately, and is soon acclaimed and adored by the literary world. He wins an award, moves into a much more expensive New York City crib, and is even able to have some of his former, more unconventional work — i.e., the stuff he actually wrote — introduced to the public. The key here is that Cooper manages to keep Rory modest and humble, so when he’s greeted by an Old Man (Jeremy Irons, looking like he could keel over and die any minute) in a park one day — a man who turns out to be the book’s true author — we sort of feel bad that Rory’s life, however fabricated, isn’t going to be a paradise any longer.
Klugman and Sternthal gives us extended flashbacks here, narrated by Irons. Ben Barnes, who recently embodied the title character of Oliver Parker’s Dorian Gray, plays the younger Irons, while Nora Arnezeder plays the woman he fell for in France during the World War II era. For me, the movie stalls a bit at this point — though Quaid’s intermittent narration is badly misjudged, it’s at least succinct and short-lived, whereas Irons’s backstory task is burdened with so much extended weight that it eventually loses momentum. I prefer his present-day scenes with Cooper, because, as with the Simmons encounter, they’re not interactions fueled by hate and disdain. They’re more about the practicality of maintaining a realistic view of one’s life.
Like their writing, the tag-team direction of Klugman and Sternthal oscillates between good, when it effectively captures a brooding sleekness, and bad, when it takes the brooding part a step too far. There is a beat, for instance, when a doctor informs someone of a tragic death, and he does so by patting the man’s arm and then leaving the frame immediately. This is a touch that’s too sober-minded — I don’t know about you, but I think I’d get more attention from a doctor if I walked in with a paper cut. More coolly stylish are the various compositions of Cooper and Saldana laying against each other — there are many images, like one of the film’s posters, that criss-cross their bodies, and these have a neat effect. (There’s another shot, positioning Quaid and Wilde on opposite floors of the former’s luxurious loft, that I was quite taken with.)
If you’re looking to nitpick, you’ll likely have a successful go at it with The Words. (Case in point: After my showing, two women walked out of the theater reciting and then mocking various lines of admittedly overwrought dialogue.) But I had a different experience with the movie — not one that was immune to the film’s kinks, but one that chose to overlook them in favor of the atypical solemnity that characterizes the picture.
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