Movie review by Greg Carlson
A maddening exercise in self-seriousness, “The Words” might find future success in basic screenwriting courses as an example of script structures to be avoided. Of course, that notion assumes the movie will be remembered at all. The film’s story, about a writer creating a story about a writer who steals his story from another writer, is constructed from a series of vignettes presented too often as a set of nested visualizations of the written word intended to carry a great deal of disquieting significance. The presence of Jeremy Irons, credited as “The Old Man” in one of the movie’s many misguided allusions to Ernest Hemingway, only exacerbates the film’s problematic division of its narrative strands.
Groaning under the weight of its unsustainable Hemingway crush, the post-World War II flashbacks to Paris are described in detail by the Old Man to word thief Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), even though large segments of the narrated information would have already been included in the appropriated manuscript familiar to Rory and thus rendering redundant the Old Man’s ponderous retelling. Co-screenwriters and co-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal show a great deal less interest in Rory’s motivations for passing off another’s work as his own, setting the stage for an inevitable confession to Rory’s wife Dora (Zoe Saldana suffering the indignity of a ghostly role).
As soon as Dennis Quaid’s established novelist Clayton Hammond attracts the attention of aggressive grad student Daniella (Olivia Wilde) during a public reading of his work, viewers are fooled into believing that the presence of the curious young woman will result in satisfying revelations. Otherwise, what is the point of constructing the flirtatious framing device scenes between these strangers? The filmmakers predictably allude to the possibility that Hammond is the inspiration and model for Rory Jansen, but stop short of confirming the connection.
Bradley Cooper features on the film’s one-sheet, even though the character he plays is a figment of Hammond’s and/or Daniella’s imagination. Cooper receives more than his share of insulting critiques claiming that his physical appeal precludes any real capacity for acting talent (not unlike barbs aimed at Brad Pitt at least as far back as 1992’s “A River Runs Through It”). “The Words” doesn’t help the handsome star’s case, but if the buzz proves correct, negative attitudes about Cooper may change with the upcoming release of David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook.”
Considering the number of plagiarism cases that have made headlines in recent years, “The Words” might have been improved by focusing on the details of Rory’s deception from his point of no return (when he lies to his adoring wife’s face) through the decision of his sleazy, unscrupulous editor to maintain the public illusion that Rory has written a great book. Instead, the filmmakers spend far too much time inside the Old Man’s memories. These scenes are especially vexing, since so much of their drama is recounted in verbal description instead of through the performances of the actors playing the younger versions of Irons’ character and his wife. The tragedy suffered by these new parents, yet another Hemingway nod, leads to the future Old Man’s cathartic composition. When Irons growls over the pounding score, “The words simply poured out of him,” viewers will wonder why a movie about literary inspiration is so uninspired.