On a Thursday afternoon, I found myself sitting alone in a small theater heckling. Embarrassingly, it’s not that unusual for me to talk back to a movie, but I don’t think I’ve ever been so annoyed that I held my head in my hands, grumbling. Such was the case with The Words.
The Words tells a story within a story within a story, starting with author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) giving a reading of his new novel The Words. His book tells the story of Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), a young author struggling to support himself and his wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana), while pursuing his dream of being a great writer. On their honeymoon in Paris, Dora buys Rory an old leather briefcase to use at work (in the mail-room of a publishing house). Later, after losing faith in his ability to write a good book, and one that someone will publish, Rory finds an old manuscript tucked in a hidden pocket of the briefcase. How he didn’t realize it was there sooner, based on weight alone, is beyond me. The secret novel is so beautifully and poignantly written that it haunts Rory until he types it out just to feel the words flowing through his fingertips. Unwittingly, Dora finds the novel, assumes Rory has written it, and tearfully begs him to show it to his boss. Rory is launched into the literati and all of his dreams have come true until an old man (Jeremy Irons) stops him in Central Park and tells him a story about a young man who wrote a novel years ago and lost it.
I could see this film being a great thriller if the stakes or consequences were higher. That might have worked. Instead, The Words is a movie trying to be a short story (probably by O. Henry) and failing. It just comes of as overwritten, self-important, and, ultimately, cliched. The frame narrative is an interesting structure and it unfolds beautifully, but the characters are flat and the dialogue pompous. Further, almost the whole story is narrated to the audience through either Clay or The Old Man. With all the storytelling, there’s not enough room for the story to actually happen. The entire movie seems built upon overblown narratives of people who love language and think they are smarter than they really are. The great tragedy of the story is a man who cared more for words than for the woman he loved. The Words reminded me of Stranger Than Fiction in its use of narration and love of the written word, but there’s no sense of play or delight in the language of The Words. Everyone, including the filmmakers, are just taking themselves too seriously. Aesthetically, The Words alternates between a perfume ad and a vintage postcard. It’s beautiful to look at, but overly-styled.
I’m not sure I can even comment on the acting. The script is so overbearing with narration, that most of the acting boils down to reaction shots. Bradley Cooper was dreadful, as was Dennis Quaid. I’ve got to hand it to the casting director, because I can totally buy Cooper as a younger Quaid. Zoe Saldana is so beautiful when she cries, it’s unfair, but otherwise her talent is wasted in this movie.
The film is in love with Ernest Hemingway, the macho symbol of literacy in for both Rory and The Old Man (and rightly so), but I think this film would have made Hemingway want to vomit. Even the credits were pretentious. When they rolled over somber music it was clear the filmmakers thought they had created something profound. They created an egotistical mess.
The only thing I liked about The Words was its tagline “there’s more than one way to take a life.” The cleverness ends there. 1/5 stars.
The Words was written and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal. It runs 97 minutes and is rated PG-13 for brief strong language and smoking.
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