Written and Directed by Brian Klugman & Lee Sternthal
In the sixth grade I was tasked, as a young, disillusioned writer with completing an assignment for my creative writing class. We had the option to write a new short story every time an assignment was due, or we could make each new entry a different chapter in a greater story. I chose the latter and strung together a piece about a young man who was tutored in the game of golf by the local pro Mr. Rodriguez. To this day I am immensely proud of what I wrote. However, the world’s greatest tragedy occurred and I seem to have since misplaced these hallowed documents containing my life’s greatest work. I wish I could go back and read these stories and see that snapshot in my sixth grade life, but I sadly cannot.
The same thing happened to a man, portrayed by Jeremy Irons, in the film The Words. As a young man in the military, he experienced love and tragedy with his French wife in Paris, which inspired him, as a promising writer, to write an astounding novel. But that novel was lost and no one except the man and his wife ever read the story. That is, until Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), a young, aspiring writer, finds the manuscript while honeymooning in Paris with his wife Dora (Zoe Saldana), and passes the novel off as his own. The novel becomes a instant hit and vaults Jansen to stardom in the New York literary world. But little does Jansen know that the man who wrote the story is now an old man, a man who confronts Rory with a touching tale of a young military man in Paris. At least, that is how Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) spins it in his latest successful novel, The Words.
Wait, what? Exactly. Writer/Directors Klugman and Sternthal craft a tale about an author telling the story about an author telling a story. That is three levels deep folks and as such it creates a somewhat convoluted narrative. In many ways it becomes Penrose Stairs, circling around itself and never quite going anywhere. Using this smoke screen allows the film to veil its empty, undeveloped characters by merely appearing to have full characters and a reach to a deeper meaning, when in reality it just masks its shortcomings with characters whose ambitions and actions merely hint at that depth without ever having to truly show it; however, its hints are enticing enough to provide a semi-satisfying tease. And that tease is led by Jeremy Irons whose mysterious old man is easily the best part of the film. But Bradley Cooper is decent opposite of Irons too, and delivers a nice performance himself. Not great, but nice.
Rory Jansen reminded me of myself at times, seeking approval from others for the work he holds so dear. We all seem to reach for some sort of approval from others. And if you don’t, or say you don’t, you’re probably not human. This is what Jansen is going through, but how do we define success? Is it a dollar amount, or the amount of friends we have, the love we give or the love we receive? There is no set definition of success, though as a society I would say we lean towards the dollar signs more often than not to equate success. At the same time, how do we deal with success once we find it? I don’t have the answers, and unfortunately neither does the film. It asks all kinds of questions without ever trying to answer them. Why are Dora and Rory in love? What happened to the old man from the time between his youth and old age? Who the heck is Clay Hammond and what is his story? Heck, who the hell is Olivia Wilde’s character supposed to be and what does she add!?
While I speak of the films flaws, the narrative somehow remains engaging and thought provoking. This does not necessarily make it a good film, but it does not make it a terrible one either. As Dennis Quaid’s character in the film says, the luxury of the author is that they get to ask the questions; they don’t have to know the answers to them, and that is what this film does, it poses the questions and presents the meaningful conversations without ever having to truly have them. The only truly poignant moment in the film is a scene between Cooper and Irons, beautifully delivered by Irons. The film answers nothing, pushing the onus on the viewer, which will most likely mean a lukewarm reception with advocates on both sides of the coin: those who tap upon the ornate, frilly exterior to find the film easily crack and reveal its hollow interior which lacks a true heart, and those who receive the questions with an open mind and attempt to answer them themselves. Personally, I wanted to keep driving past my exit on the way home from the theater, listen to more somber and reflective music over the airwaves, and solve life all in time to make my bedtime. Instead I came home and wrote a subpar response to a middle of the road film I saw, a film which faked its way into my head and left me contemplating answers to questions I never expected to have to answer. They say art imitates life, imitates art, etc. etc.; if this is the case, I feel sorry for the writers of this film, as they still reach for their success.