For a film about writers, The Words isn’t particularly well written. Scripted and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, the movie features a familiar plotline: A struggling novelist stumbles on an unpublished manuscript and passes it off as his own, only to have the real author (Jeremy Irons) come out of the woodwork. Adding another layer, the story is told by another author, who has his own, obvious secret.
The first thing working against The Words is that of the three actors portraying writers, only one, Irons, does it convincingly. That Bradley Cooper, who plays protagonist Rory Jansen, is best known for his straight-man role in the screwball-on-steroids comedy The Hangover (and its sequel) probably doesn’t help — he just doesn’t seem that capable of communicating emotional depth. As Clay Hammond, the author of a book about Rory, Dennis Quaid looks the part even less. As a baseball player or low-level bureaucrat? OK. But as an intellectual? Eh, not so much.
If these seem like minor quibbles, they reflect the broader problem with The Words. About an author who stole the novel that made his career — a work praised endlessly for the “truth” that it conveyed — nothing about the film itself rings true. The miscast actors aren’t given particularly developed characters to work with. Granted, the interior experience of writing is difficult to conjure on screen, but we come to know little else about Rory, his life, or his work other than that he wants desperately to succeed as a writer. We don’t see the experiences that influenced his own novel, the life that informed its composition, or the processes he went through. Instead, we see one devastating rejection, courtesy of an agent/editor played by Bob Balaban, who tells Rory that his work reflects a maturity beyond his years but that it’s an unmarketable debut.
And that’s that — Rory doesn’t shop it around, he doesn’t wallow much — until he gets a clerical job delivering mail at a publishing company, which is partly humiliating and partly opportunistic. However, when he finally asks an editor there to look over a manuscript, it’s not his own but one he found in a briefcase. Rory typed it out on his computer only because he “wanted to feel the words pass through his fingers,” our narrator tells us, yet he went ahead and submitted it after being gently browbeaten by his wife Dora (Zoe Saldana), who incorrectly assumed that he authored the piece.
After sales and accolades cement the book’s success, an unnamed old man (Irons) appears and stalks Rory one morning on his way to Central Park. He wants simply to tell the story behind the novel that Rory stole. The old man isn’t seeking credit or compensation for his work; he wants instead to haunt Rory, who might otherwise have been able to repress the truth of his theft.
An American soldier who served in France during the World War II, Irons’ character (played as a youth by Ben Barnes) fell in love with a French woman and with the written word. Returning to Paris after the war, he pursued an apprenticeship as a journalist and started a family with the woman, Celia (Nora Anezeder). Tragedy tore them apart when their young daughter died, and the couple separated for a time to recuperate. Suddenly inspired, the man penned his masterpiece and shared it with his wife, who lost it on a train. The man made his way back to the States and never wrote again.
The old man’s story is clichéd in both content and delivery. The flashbacks are rendered through an old-timey filter. The technique is neither subtle nor necessary, communicating the obvious (that the scenes take place in the past) and grafting onto the story a sense of wistfulness and romance that is unearned. Indeed, it has an effect similar to Instagram, not just in look but in feel: By attempting to transform mediocre material with a “vintage” makeover, the directors ultimately draw more attention to the affectedness and artificiality on display.
The Words does offer a twist in the form of author Clay Hammond, more hinted at than revealed. He tells the story of the stolen manuscript in his own novel, and a book-reading event serves as the springboard for the scenes with Rory and the old man. A young grad student in attendance (Olivia Wilde) follows Clay home and appears to seduce the middle-aged author, convincing him to continue telling the story. In spinning the yarn for her, however, Clay implicates himself in his own tale.
The Words fails to rise above middling direction, acting, and writing. It has nothing profound to say about authorship, storytelling, or secrets. And that’s bad news for a film about writers.
Starring Bradley Cooper, Ben Barnes, and Jeremy Irons. Written and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal. Rated PG-13.