Sandwiched between a Hangover sequel and the Oscar-worthy Silver Linings Playbook, Bradley Cooper also found time for a somber literary fantasy about creative ownership and the ethereal nature of characters, ideas and crippling writers block. Yes, it’s every bit as “exciting” as that sounds.
What is The Words really about, anyway?
Is it the story of struggling writer Rory Jansen (Cooper), who’s fed up with his stalled, fragmentary professional life despite the presence of supportive fiancée Dora (Zoe Saldana) and a patient father with a limited income (J.K. Simmons)? Is it the story of a mysterious old man (Jeremy Irons), who wanders into Rory’s life with a lengthy tale about romance and tragedy during time of war--a story the best-selling author doesn’t want to hear? Or might The Words actually be about successful novelist Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), who’s book – titled The Words, of course – seems to be about Rory, the old man, and a few other devices I’ll leave for you to discover.
The Words doesn’t seamlessly gel is because co-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal can’t calculate how to make all three storylines gracefully merge in a fashion that maintains literary tension or, sadly, the audience’s interest.
They have an excellent hook: Jansen, while on a honeymoon in France, discovers a manuscript in the pocket of a briefcase his new wife purchases. When everyone who reads the novel – from Dora to his publisher boss – raves about the magnificent piece, Rory accepts credit for the book (and the spoils that come with literary notoriety) while ignoring that nagging guilt of not actually writing the book in question.
The moral quandary is enough to sustain the drama in The Words, with Irons twisting the metaphorical knife deeper into Cooper’s conscience by showing up and claiming to be the actual author of the published words. And both men muster the proper reverence for the art of storytelling, and the power strung-together words can have over an audience. There’s a great scene in The Words where Irons is telling his life story to Cooper, who hangs on every word, even though this is a man who can ruin him, professionally and financially.
Yet, Klugman and Sternthal construct a bookending device that’s not only unnecessary, it strips the impact away from Cooper’s quandary. By introducing Hammond, and suggesting that Cooper and Irons are merely characters in a separate author’s story, we’re no longer as concerned about their fates, and therefore no longer as concerned about The Words as a whole. The drama is undone by the overly clever narrative structuring. The conceit is deflated by its convoluted nature. There’s a stellar story lurking in The Words, if only some of the superfluous words could have been left out.
Ignoring my argument that The Words needed to be pared down and more focused, CBS Films has put an extended special edition of the film on the DVD release. I chose the theatrical cut when sitting down to review The Words, and had absolutely no desire to revisit a longer take. Maybe there’s a fourth plotline with more characters whose contributions add nothing of significance to the overall story. If you manage to see the extended cut, do let me know if it somehow improves the overall experience.
I did, however, watch “Unabridged,” which was a conventional behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film. This pairs nicely with “A Gentleman’s Agreement,” an extended conversation with Cooper about his participation in The Words and his collaborations with the two directors. Neither feature is overly informative. Everyone seemed to have a lot of fun working on The Words. It’s clear they felt the material would play better than it does on screen. Words on a page often do.