Bradley Cooper and Zoe Saldaña embody lost hope in "The Words."
Photo by Courtesy CBS Film
"The Words" is a literary movie. I mean that all too literally. This film, written and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, tells a story of an author who has written a book called "The Words." The book delves into the life of an "imaginary" author who publishes a book called "The Window Tears," which he did not write, but instead plagiarized word for word (including misspellings) from an old manuscript found in the lining of a distressed attaché that his wife bought for him from an antique store during their honeymoon in Paris. The original manuscript is the sole literary achievement of an unknown writer (then a young man, but who appears in the film as an old man). The real writer (Jeremy Irons) wrote the novel during a breaking point in his life. He lived and breathed post-World War II Paris. The forger (Bradley Cooper) and the recording voyeur (Dennis Quaid) did not.
The movie promises a heady experience, intertwining three layers of literary voices and personal hardships until "life" and "fiction" are inseparable—a possible thrill after the dullest summer of sequels and remakes on record. The twisting sub-plots pull and twist into a rubric's cube of literary narrative so dense that at one point, I envisioned a cinematic experience as ingenuous as "The Hours," another "book within a book" film.
Unfortunately, "The Words" fizzles out before literary lift-off.
The movie opens on Clay Hammond (Quaid), a celebrity author reading excerpts of his new book, "The Words," to a capacity crowd. Hammond's deep and inviting baritone voice introduces his listeners to an old man (Irons) standing in the rain outside a fancy New York hotel. It's late evening, and a handsome young couple gets into a black limo. The couple represents everything the old man is not.
The film flashes back to the American Fellowship Award ceremonies, where we see the same young couple—Rory Jansen (Cooper) and his dazzling beautiful wife Dora (Zoe Saldaña)—sitting in the seats of honor. Accepting the highest award of the evening, Rory deflects the accolades and refers to his first published novel as a little book that some people liked. Cooper grounds Rory in three-dimension. Rory seems much more real than Hammond.
Klugman and Sternthal pull out a second flashback into Rory's struggles to become a professional writer. The stacks of rejection letters and a running inner monologue of "I'm not good enough" haunt Rory. He's scared: "I'm not who I thought I was. I'm terrified that I will not be who I want to be." Dora hugs him. She pets his hair. She coos encouragement. She never questions the validity of his dream. And then success—forged from someone else brilliance—falls to Rory.
The movie cuts back to Hammond reading. You see, this is a reading of book within a book, and the filmmakers like to yank down the fourth wall to keep us off balance. As a result, the experience is jarring and disjointed, and what is real or not blurs together.
During a break, an impressionable young woman (Olivia Wilde) with large, hero-worshipping eyes and a short skirt, flirts with Hammond. Hammond reluctantly returns to the podium to continue this next section of the book: Rory's fall from grace. "Rory is the darling of the literary world," booms Hammond. "Then he meets the old man ... ."
The real and imaginary people in this film are destroyed by the repression of lost hope. The myriad references to Ernest Hemingway and his ex-pat days in Paris seem to transfer the Lost Hope generation to the present. The film dabbles with themes of immorality among successful people, only to pull out a smug, unsatisfying ending.
Despite moments of illumination from a brilliant cast and a feeling of authenticity, this movie aimlessly meanders into the hellish underbelly of middle-class despair, so harrowing that you may wish to bash your head in with a manual typewriter so as to clear the fog of depression. (I would have done so, but we cleaned the attic recently, and the old typewriter has been removed from the curb.)
Some may think that I'm sliding into a melodramatic fit. But if the words fit ... well ... then they fit.