Silver Screen: The Words 1/2*
The only thing that might save The Words from appearing on a lot of year-end worst-of lists is it's also one of the year's most forgettable movies. The pompous, would-be literary drama adopts all the affectations of the well-read without every introducing a single insight or thoughtful sentence. Imagine an action movie where the hero is unable to punch anyone or a porn flick full of erectile dysfunction and uninhabitably arid starlets and you start to get the idea.
Movies about books tend to be very bad, for mostly obvious reasons. Writing is not a very cinematic endeavor, so there's no compelling way to convey the process. Nobody wants to watch a guy think and type, and using narration to highlight the fiction-within-the-fiction just turns a movie into a video adaptation of an audiobook. Moreover, literary writing is difficult, and few are the screenwriters who can convincingly ape it even in short bursts, so there's usually an authenticity gap.
All of these problems and more plague The Words, which is not so much about the literary world as it is about what a person who doesn't read imagines the literary world to be like. Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) is a struggling writer who's written one mediocre, uncommercial novel and has found no success. It never occurs to him to also write short stories or essays to break into the marketplace, or even to write another novel. He just quits-- at least until he discovers an old manuscript in a suitcase he received as a gift from his supportive wife (Zoe Saldana). He's compelled by the manuscript, which he types up and passes off as his own, garnering much acclaim. Not even Cooper's character, much less any audience member, can seem surprised when an old man (Jeremy Irons) approaches Rory to claim ownership of the manuscript, which he wrote and lost shortly after World War II.
Rory's unconvincing morality play is told as a story-within-a-story. Rory is the fictional creation of Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), a renowned author giving what appears to be the world's longest public reading before retiring to his apartment with a sexy wannabe writer (Olivia Wilde). It's pretty obvious early on what's the secret connection between Clay's real life and that of his fictional counterpart. Thus not only is any possible suspense drained from that plotline, but the majority of the film, the Rory sections, are soon revealed to be not “real” within the context of the movie, and thus seem even flimsier. We're wasting our time watching a movie about a boring pretend writer who's writing a boring story about an even worse boring writer who steals a story from an old man who used to be a writer. Inception didn't even have this many levels of nonsense between the audience and reality.
Cowriters and directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal don't use this story-within-a-story-within-a-story structure to comment on the nature of fiction, or to play Charlie Kaufmanesque intellectual games. What they do offer is the veneer of the well-read-- lots of suits, wine glasses, leather briefcases, and hardback books-- along with vapid faux insights like, “We all make choices. It's living with them that's the difficult part.” The characters speak about the honesty and truth in the fiction they love, and yet not a single element of The Words feels familiar or true or honest. The one line of the supposedly brilliant novel the film centers around fails to be even a passable sentence, much less a fragment of brilliance: “It was the sweetest thing he ever saw.” It's particularly annoying to endure a bad piece of art in which the characters constantly remind you about the merits of a good story, well-told.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.