Bradley Cooper, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilder, Zoe Saldana, Ben Barnes, Nora Arnezeder
(CBS Films; US theatrical: 7 Sep 2012 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 7 Sep 2012 (General release); 2012)
It’s hard enough for a movie to successfully juggle one narrative, let alone many. Yet The Words, the latest from CBS Films, wants to posit it’s romantic dramatic within three individual storylines, each one supposedly providing insight into the human condition and the characters playing out these particular desperate lives. One plot has a high profile author (Dennis Quaid) reading from his latest bestseller, and catching the eye of an inquisitive admirer (Olivia Wilde). The other two are within the premise, tales revolving around the book’s protagonist, a wannabe writer (Bradley Cooper) who wants more than anything to be famous. After his honeymoon in Paris, he discovers an old manuscript in an ancient valise, and without blinking, republishes it as his own. Naturally, the original scribe (Jeremy Irons) comes calling, requiring he know the whole story before claiming the copy as his own.
Sounds simple enough, right? After all, Quaid reads something, explains it a bit more to Wilde, and then we get Cooper and his wife (Zoe Saldana) struggling while he tries to make good. Once Irons arrives, he offers up the “inspiration” for the faded typed pages - an ex-GI living in France after the War, wooing and then marrying a the girl of his dreams, and the tragedy that surrounds the birth of their child. Yet for some reason, the constant shifts in perspective, the flashbacking and flash-forwarding, cause confusion, and then concern. Initially, we assume Quaid is telling us something “true,” that is, a slice of life that either influenced him, or actually occurred to him. But then things get cloudy, especially once Irons walks in. Granted, he’s nothing more than a catalyst, a cog to move the story machine from one end to another, but as Quaid says in the end, “Maybe he’s just made up. Maybe he’s just fiction, like the book.”
Okay, so what is it? What lesson are we supposed to learn? One way of interpreting The Words is that Quaid is Cooper, that he stole a book which cost him his marriage, and that several years later, he’s used the scenario to “out” himself, go all media mea culpa, and clear his conscience. Of course, there would be so many holes in said plot (including the lack of legitimate period cues in the inner narrative) that it can’t really be. That means that it’s nothing more than a work of fiction, which then begs another question…why do we need Quaid? What is he adding to the subtext or theme? His presence asks us to accept his import, yet this interpretation consistently countermands it. The Words thinks it can outsmart us, however, providing one of those “what if” endings that raises such questions. Without some idea of the possible answer, however, all we get is frustration.
Then there is Irons’ motivation, another spoiler-esque extreme. One imagines that a man whose seen his passionate, personal manuscript turned into a cause celeb for another, less deserving person would want payback. What the character wants is ownership, that is, that the man responsible for stealing the story of his life claim the horrific elements of his life as well. Actually, it’s a little more esoteric than that. He wants Cooper to understand what went into the book, the kind of pain and loss that inspired its contents. He wants him to own it, to feel it, to be ashamed of being unable to find it in himself. Really? Is that the main message of the movie - that plagiarists should accept the sacrifice they are claiming as their own? Unlike other movies where literary stealing figures prominently (Secret Window, for example), there’s no thriller ruse. No, Irons is a sad, depressed old coot, and he wants his ‘ghostwriter’ to become the same.
This all grows preposterous and rather pointless, negating anything good The Words has to offer. Irons is okay as the aging instigator, while Quaid does little except smirk and apologize. Cooper and Saldana make a cute couple, but they really don’t have much to do. Everything in their relationship is expositional space saving. Perhaps the best performances come from the story within the story couple, the GI and his bride played by Ben Barnes and Nora Arnezeder respectively. They seem to have a spark, a sense of passion and purpose that others here lack. They seem to spring from the pages of a pulp novel, not some sour script contrivance. While others surrounding the main story serve offer some fun (JK Simmons as Cooper’s dad, Ron Rifkin as a matter of fact literary agent), everything rests of the tales being told - and that’s the movie’s main failing.
Clearly, The Words is the product of a successful pitch. One can hear TRON: Legacy conceptualists Brian Klugman and Lee Sternhal sitting in a studio office, wowing the suits with their complicated, interwoven collection of stories. As they map out each step, drawing the listener in, the possible greenlight marches ever closer to confirmation. Toss in a few name casting suggestions, and the dotted line arrives for signatures. Sadly, the premise fails to produce anything other than boredom. We get mildly interested in Cooper’s struggles, Irons’ reality, and what the two actually mean to each other. But then the directing, again handled by our first time screenwriting duo, deadens everything. They offer little in the way of style and believe that by simply putting their stories on film, they will work. They are wrong.
And yet there is something inherently compelling about this particular set-up, something that signals a small amount of entertainment in the far reaches of your aesthetic. We are drawn into the Cooper/Irons confront, even if it doesn’t pay off all that well. We also want to know if there is a core mystery here, or just a lot of literary hot air. Unfortunately, The Words won’t offer an clear cut answers. They must believe their ideas are beyond clever. Instead, they’re a bunch of claptrap.