The Words

© 2012 Ray Wong

Movies about writers always fascinate me as I'm a writer. Unfortunately, I also review them with a more critical eye. And with that critical eye, I must say I'm very disappointed with The Words.

The story begins with famed novelist Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) doing a reading of his latest bestseller, The Words. At the core of this piece of fiction is protagonist, a young struggling writer Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), and his loving partner Dora (Zoe Saldana). Despite not having much, Rory and Dora are happy, except that Rory is becoming more and more desperately frustrated with his "career" as a novelist. Eventually Rory gives up and ends up working as a mail office clerk at a literary agency.

While on their honeymoon in Paris, Rory comes across a tattered briefcase in an antique shop. Then he discovers a typewritten manuscript inside the briefcase that would eventually change his life. The anonymous manuscript tells of a story of an American soldier (Ben Barnes) and his young wife Celia (Nora Arnezeder) living in post-WWII Paris, and it's written by a writer whose talent creates much envy and woe for Rory -- Rory realizes he will never be that good. Desperate, Rory decides to retype the manuscript as his own. Soon, the book becomes a bestselling novel and makes Rory the new literary darling.

Even with his success, Rory struggles with the guilt of his secret, that he's plagiarized and stolen someone's life as his own. That guilt comes to a head when an old man visits him, and reveals that he is the author of the story. What should Rory do? How can he make amends?

Bradley Cooper (Hangover 2) has played a writer before, and he does it rather well, even though he is probably too pretty (how many gorgeous writers do we know?) That said, Cooper's portrayal is somewhat underwhelming and understated to make a lasting impression, or to be convincing. Zoe Saldana (Columbiana) is luminous as Dora, but her role is reduced to secondary and supporting as the character hasn't been fully realized.

Dennis Quaid (Footloose) does a fine job as a writer who seems to have buried a lot of pain underneath his cheery, charming shell. Quaid manages to convince us that his character is ambivalent and confused. Olivia Wilde's (People Like Us) talent is rather wasted in a small role as a literary student who crushes on the older writer. Ben Barnes (Killing Bono) is affecting as the young protagonist in Rory's story, and Nora Arnezeder (Maniac) is effervescent as his wife.

But the standout is veteran Jeremy Irons (Margin Call), whose tired face and eyes convey the sadness and hollowness of the old man he portrays. Irons's performance is subtle, understated and yet heartbreakingly real.

That brings me to biggest problem I have with the screenplay, written by co-directors Brian Klugman (TRON: Legacy) and Lee Sternthal (TRON: Legacy). While the concept of plagiarism is fascinating and important, their treatment of the story is cliched and convoluted. Worst of all, I find it melodramatic and unauthentic. So many elements feel off and unrealistic. The triple layers of story-within-a-story structure makes it harder for us to relate and connect to the characters -- who are we supposed to be rooting for? The young man and Celia? Rory and Dora? Or the successful writer? At the end of the day, none of these characters seem particularly engaging or sympathetic.

As a writer, I am also jarred out of the story by the inaccuracy when it comes to publishing. I'm sorry, but an agent simply would not call a writer into this office just to reject him. The only purpose of that scene is to create suspense, but not only does it fail in doing so (we already know what is coming), but it almost ruins the entire movie for me. Also, any literary agent worth his salt would not tolerate plagiarism -- he would have taken his commission, pledged innocence, and kicked his client to the curb. Such outrageous plot points hamper the story to a point that I just can't suspend my disbelief. Not to mention the "story" that is supposed to be so sensational turns out to be melodramatic and mundane -- that is, after all, the cardinal sin of writing: if you're going to tell us someone is a great writer/poet, don't actually show us his work.

The direction by Klugman and Sternthal is also clunky and slow. The pacing is off, and at places the plot becomes so unnecessarily melodramatic that it's hard to watch. The payoff isn't there either. What is the story about? The morality of stealing? Or how crazy and unstable it is to love and trust someone? I am not really sure. Without a strong message and theme, the story becomes unfocused and irrelevant.

That is a shame. The premise is interesting and presents a deep, controversial conflict. Unfortunately, the execution falls way short of expectations. Thus my final words: Not very good.

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Jeremy Irons, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde, J.K. Simmons, Ben Barnes, Nora Arnezeder
Directors: Brian Klugman, Lee Sternthal
Writers: Brian Klugman, Lee Sternthal
Distributor: CBS Films
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for brief strong language and smoking, drinking
Running Time: 96 minutes 


Script - 6
Performance - 7
Direction - 6
Cinematography - 7
Music/Sound - 8
Editing - 7
Production - 7

Total - 6.7 out of 10.0 

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