The Words is indefatigably earnest in its efforts to create a sweeping, epic amoral morality play, but it quickly becomes one of the year’s most irritating movies.
A Million Little Pieces
At the center of it all is a story based on a flimsy premise and that story is bookended with an oddball secondary story. It’s all tied together with a wispy, classically-tinged score in a vain attempt to give the material a veneer of gravitas.
The primary storyline involves an aspiring author, Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper, The Hangover), whose writing is lackluster. While on a Parisian honeymoon with his new bride, Dora (Zoe Saldana, Avatar), he stumbles upon a dusty old briefcase in an antiques shop. Since he’s enamored with it, Dora buys it for him.
Well, turns out there’s a manuscript tucked away in a pocket. It’s been there for more than 60 years. It’s an earth-shattering novel, a tale of love and heartache in post-war France.
And it’s in English.
Okay. English authors in Paris? No problem. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Callaghan, and Stein are a few of the noteworthy writers who thrived in Paris.
An old, lost manuscript tucked away in an antique? Well, sure. There’ve been plenty of stories where some unassuming individual spends $3.50 on a painting at a yard sale; that painting turns out to be a genuine work of art by a master painter worth millions.
Things like that happen.
The problem with The Words – actually there are many problems with The Words – is that Rory’s an incredibly lame, amoral individual. His own writing sucks. One publisher tries to be encouraging by calling Rory’s original book “too interior” for mainstream publishing; it’s a challenging work even for an established author. Other editors write his work off as dull and derivative.
So what happens when Rory finds this lost, anonymous masterpiece? There’s no curiosity about the work’s provenance (hey, maybe it’s a lost Fitzgerald!). He types it up on his computer. Word for word. Including typos. He wants to absorb the author’s mastery of the English language through his fingers and right on up to his mind in hopes of confronting his own writing limitations. The entire book? Word for word? As an exercise? Good gosh.
Alas, Dora comes across the work while on the computer and she is awestruck her husband wrote such a moving piece of art. She knew he had it in him!
Rory, a spineless wonder, is the poster child for individuals who expect success be given to them on a silver platter; he puts up a hissy fit while trying to figure out how other people get to where they are. Even Rory’s own father chides him, telling him he’s tired of paying his son’s dues; his son needs to get a job and write as a hobby. And so it happens; Rory doesn’t explain the writing exercise. He simply takes the credit and does what Dora recommends: shop it around to publishers.
Everybody loves the book. It’s snapped up by Rory’s boss (yeah, Rory finally bit the bullet and got a job as a runner or some such thing at a publishing house). The book becomes a critical and commercial smash.
The Burning Tree
Never mind the fact flashbacks to the 1940s reveal the then brand new briefcase as being in pristine shape when the manuscript is first placed in its trust. What’s a little hard to swallow is that for more than 60 years the English manuscript stayed in the portfolio, in France. Given its current, beaten-down condition, the case surely changed hands many times after accidentally being left on a train. Nobody noticed? It wasn’t exactly a secret compartment, after all. It’s a rickety setup that requires a leap of faith, but it’s a leap of faith that isn’t earned given the movie’s nothing more than a hollow emotional shell desperately trying to come across as profound.
Structurally, the approach to telling the story is horrendous. In an attempt to end with a dramatic twist, Rory’s story is told as a work of fiction as read by its author, Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid, The Right Stuff), during a gala book reading event. A gorgeous young fan, Daniella (Olivia Wilde, In Time) approaches Clay and strikes up a conversation; her motives aren’t clear, but she says she knows everything about Clay. Is that grounds for a proposition or is she trying to trap him?
Clay’s relationship with Daniella turns into narrative clutter while Clay reads from his book, which itself has a twist involving the original manuscript’s author (Jeremy Irons, Inland Empire) confronting Rory, but without a shred of anger. The old man’s moved on; the experience of writing his masterpiece, based on his own life’s triumphs and tragedies, was too draining to try to write it all up a second time, after the original was lost.
From the old man’s point of view, life is all about making choices and then learning to live with the aftermath. It’s a great message, but it’s buried under a mound of tripe; this is a morality play in which amorality rules and it’s a prime example, following in the dreary tracks of We Need to Talk About Kevin and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, in which artifice is shilled as art.
The Window Tears
The shame of it all is the wasting of an A-list cast. Jeremy Irons, Dennis Quaid, Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Olivia Wilde, and Ben Barnes all do their best to imbue the faux with something real. And there’s also the exquisite French actress Nora Arnezeder (Paris 1936), who never fails to light up the screen.
But the clumsy interweaving of Rory’s and Clay’s stories is nowhere near the effective device the writing/directing duo Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, who teamed on Tron: Legacy’s story, surely had envisioned.
Given the recent spate of literary and journalistic debacles, including James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (which wound up being a source of embarrassment to Oprah after her misplaced accolades) and more recently Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works (in which Lehrer – creatively – fabricated quotes by Bob Dylan), there’s value in the story lurking in the words Klugman and Sternthal put together.
But those words need some rearranging.
And, for heaven’s sake, next time don’t create a character who’s a dedicated Yankees fan, one who rarely misses a home game, then have him stash a game-played Babe Ruth baseball on his desk. Clay has such a ball, but it’s not enshrined in a case. It’s loose, and ready for Daniella to throw around as if it has no historical significance.
That’s after spending so much time focused on the details of the original manuscript’s creation, including a handwritten “Dear John” letter and the author’s ink-stained thumbprint (which possibly could’ve gone a long way to deriving the writing’s provenance). Egregious negligence of such details shatters this movie’s ambitions into a million little pieces.