[7 September 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“How the hell do you end up where you are?” Rory (Bradley Cooper) is upset. Really, earnestly, truly upset. You know this because the shot is long and a little low, because the alley where he’s confronting his wife Dora (Zoe Saldana) is dark, and the pavement is wet. You know he’s earnest too, because he’s just stomped out of a restaurant, shocked his friends, and now, not knowing what else to do, he lashes out at Dora: “My life,” he moans at her, “it’s not right.”
“How’s that supposed to make me feel?” she asks. Oof. As the camera frames Dora to showcase her wet eyes and trembling lower lip, you’re aware that the entire scene in the alley is predictable, silly, and badly written. This is a particular problem for The Words, a movie about writing.
It’s also a consistent problem. The Words opens on a shot of a novel titled The Words, prominent in a shot that also shows the torso and hands of its writer, Clay (Dennis Quaid), gathering up his keys and cell phone from the table where the book is so displayed. He goes on to a public reading, at which point the movie cuts to Rory and Dora, as he’s also speaking at a public event, accepting a prize for his novel. He’s uncomfortable with the honor, a point underlined by the rainy night and also, as Clay narrates, “The Old Man.” Played by Jeremy Irons, his earnest face is initially obscured by rain and shadow, as well as his brimmed Old Man’s hat.
At this moment the movie cuts back to “Five Years Earlier,” like the Old man, the perfect wife, and the rainy night, another of its too-many contrivances. Here you see Rory and Dora looking young and enthusiastic, moving into a walkup with a mattress on the floor and imagining a future where he’ll be a famous writer. The platitudes pile on. Rory’s father (J.K. Simmons), writing him yet another check to make rent, suggests that getting a job is part of “being a man.” Dad goes on, “Another part of being a man is accepting your own limitations.” Rory’s face is sad, earnestly sad. And still, Clay narrates as you watch Rory hunched over his laptop late at night, the camera panning and the shots dissolving and a piano on the soundtrack: “He continued to write, believing he had a story to tell.”
Um, yecch. The story Rory has to tell is the story Clay has to tell, which is to say, a story about truth and lies, life and fiction. “Life and fiction,” Clay instructs a beautiful groupie, Daniella (Olivia Wilde), who comes back with him to his apartment after his reading, “They never touch, they are very different things.” Right. Unless they’re in a movie about how they touch and how they’re not very “different things” at all. It appears that Rory does write a book but then he can’t find an outlet. “I see so much truth in your work,” opines a publisher (Ron Rifkin), inserted here so you know the book is good, an assessment you can’t make for yourself, because you never have access to, well, the words.
Because it’s good, the publisher suggests, it can’t be published. And so Rory endures rejections, form letters that flip across the screen in the tritest sort of montage, while Clay deplores the sad sound of all these “nos,” until he gets to his culmination, “The loudest sound of all was silence.” Ouch. If Clay’s prose is this bad, you can only imagine how bad Rory’s must be. Literally. The movie never demonstrates Rory’s prose, so you have to take Ron Rifkin’s word for it, that he sees “truth” in it.
Because this “truth” is never revealed by The Words, you’re left to imagine it. And this becomes increasingly difficult as Rory’s story—by way of Clay’s words—is utterly hackneyed. Namely, Rory’s big successful book is not his own, but one he steals, from… wait for it…. the Old Man. He finds a yellowed, typewritten manuscript in an old briefcase he and Dora discover in a Parisian antiques shop during their honeymoon. (This story borrows from the story of Hadley Hemingway accidentally leaving her husband Ernest’s MS on a train at the Gare de Lyon in 1922.) Rory loves the story (you know this because he reads it in one setting, never taking his eyes off the pages as he sets his coffee cup on the table before him). He loves it so much that he retypes it, Clay narrates: “He just wanted to feel the words goring through his fingers, through his mind.”
These words have to do, sort of, with World War II (in brownish toned flashbacks), a young American soldier (Ben Barnes), and his French wife (Nora Arnezeder). They live a quiet life, he works on his novel (again, in pans and dissolves), and he keeps a copy of The Sun Also Rises on his shelf. He and the wife, named Celia, also confront a tragedy, because this is, everyone knows, the true source of, er, truth. Clay’s words are corny and contrived, and yet, The Words propels them with a grand musical score and rainy nights and gauzy filter shots, so that you see how Rory and Dora and his publisher (Zeljko Ivanek) buy them, sell them, and then suffer over them.
The Words makes a big to-do about Rory eventually contending with his “mistake,” his eyes red and his beard stubbly. It cuts between Rory’s lie and Clay’s maybe lie, as he endeavors not to answer Danielle’s poorly phrased questions (“I’m not talking about the book, tell me the truth!”) and also, of course, to have sex with her.
This last appears to be a minor plot point in The Words, subordinate to its heavy-handed focus on the men’s drive to tell their story (which is, after all, one story). But as the women in The Words are consigned to supporting roles, as wives and girlfriends, inspirations and consciences, they embody the movie’s essential problem, its banality. You don’t really have to wonder how the hell they’ve ended up where they are. Dora and Danielle and Celia make sad faces and recite clichés, and so move their men to write more clichés. Which makes them clichés, but of course.