At one point during Brian Klugman’s and Lee Sternhal’s The Words, author Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) is told that his novel is far too artistic and delicate to be published in today’s market. The same can be said for this movie. It’s some kind of miracle that it’s made it to the big screen, as it’s the sort of fare that spells box office poison. Literate, engrossing and thought-provoking, the film sneers at demographics and succeeds in telling a tale the deals with important moral issues, namely the price we pay when we give in to our own worst impulses and the regret that comes from a life crippled by fear.
The script, also by Klugman and Sternhal, employs an interesting device as we begin with author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), who’s giving a reading of his new novel The Words. It’s Jansen’s story, one of a struggling young man who longs to be a great artist but comes to the realization that he lacks the talent to be the sort of author he wants to be. As chance would have it, while honeymooning in Paris with his wife Dora (Zoe Saldana), he finds a battered valise in an antique store, which his better half buys for him. Weeks later, after having his novel rejected once again, he happens to find an old manuscript in the case and upon reading it, realizes he’s stumbled upon a masterpiece. Against his better judgment, Rory retypes it and submits it as his own. Soon, on the basis of this work, he’s heralded as the voice of his generation, what with the book sitting atop the best-seller list for weeks, while awards and accolades shower upon him. Rory comes to terms with his deception and is content to enjoy his ill-gotten success. All goes well until the manuscript’s original author (Jeremy Irons) tracks him down and confronts him, insisting that the young man hear the true story behind the novel.
The film could have been botched in so many different ways. It would have been easy to turn this into an overwrought melodrama of the sort Nicholas Sparks has gotten rich on. Instead, Klugman and Sternhal take their time developing the characters and allow us to understand their desires as well as their flaws. While we may not agree with all that they do, we can certainly understand their actions as they are based on universal emotions and motivations. Unlike most American films made today, this is a movie driven by dialogue as well as its plot, which benefits from an economical approach. There’s very little fat here – the filmmakers have a story to tell, they know it’s a strong one and they present it unadorned so that its power isn’t lost.
The script benefits greatly from the solid cast that’s been assembled. Cooper, who also served as the film’s executive producer, continues to slowly carve out a cinematic niche for himself, seeking out projects that allow him to showcase his range and versatility. He’s quite good here, especially when Rory is dealing with the ramifications of his actions, as is Saldana who really hasn’t been given an opportunity to play a well-rounded character before this. She proves here that she’s far more than just another pretty face and that she can hold her own with any of her peers. Irons is wonderful, his lived-in countenance bearing the many misfortunes that’s befallen his character, while his gait and voice suggest a man who has defiantly gone on living long after the world should have gotten the best of him.
If there’s a fault here, it’s that that the narrative device of Hammond reading us the story ends up being a bit of a distraction, especially when he hooks up with a much younger woman (Olivia Wilde), who insists she’s simply curious about his writing methods. While in the end this method of framing proves necessary, it ends up feeling a bit too manipulative. Still, when dealing with a story as compelling as this one, this is of little consequence. The Words speaks to matters of character and morality. The actions we take can have far greater consequences than we can imagine. The inherent regret caused by them taints any treasure we delude ourselves into thinking we deserve.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.