The names Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal probably don’t mean much to general moviegoers or critics for that matter and they probably won’t after their debut feature-film, The Words, arrives in movie theaters this weekend.
A literary drama that’s neither particularly literary or particularly drama, The Words relies heavily on a well-known, and in some cases, well-respected cast to overcome a plethora of story-based shortcomings, beginning with a not-as-clever-as-they-think plot device (nested storytelling), one-dimensional characters, and ending with sub-banal, faux-profound dialogue that will have even the least engaged moviegoer wincing in shock and dismay that (a) The Words was greenlit and (b) that a cast including Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Jeremy Irons, and Olivia Wilde gave over their time and talent to such a threadbare, underwhelming film.
Three layers deep story wise, The Words opens as a popular, middle-aged novelist, Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), reads selections from his latest tome, “The Words,” to an auditorium filled with fans eager to bask in his authorly glow, including Danielle (Olivia Wilde), a Columbia University grad student. Between casually reading selections from his book and casually seducing Danielle during an extended break, the story switches to characters from Hammond’s novel, Rory Jansen (Cooper), a struggling writer facing a future as a perpetually rejected novelist, Dora (Saldana), his adoring, supportive girlfriend-turned-wife, and an Old Man (Irons), who claims Rory’s novel, “The Window Tears,” a critical and commercial success upon publication, was stolen from him or rather found in an old satchel in a used goods store in Paris and appropriated by Jansen as his own novel.
The third layer takes moviegoers inside the stolen novel. In that story, a young man (Ben Barnes), recounts his experiences after the Second World War. An ex-soldier, the young man falls in love with a Parisian waitress, Celia (Nora Arnezeder). Their relative youth and inexperience practically guarantees that their ill-fated postwar romance will not survive, especially after a personal tragedy separates them physically and emotionally, but for the young man, his “real-life” experiences provide the necessary fodder for his first (and only) novel. Whatever insights he gleans from that experience and translates into words remains something of a mystery. We only learn that the novel’s beautiful prose inspires readers to respond deeply and personally.
The Words eventually returns to Jansen’s story, his confrontation with the never-named Old Man, his subsequent guilt and shame, and perhaps even his comeuppance for an act of literary plagiarism up to and including the impact on her personal life before segueing back to the opening scene and a presumably present-day Hammond. “The Words” may or may be autobiographical and confessional in respect to Hammond, but by then it’s already a lost cause dramatically. There’s almost nothing or no one for moviegoers to identify or sympathize with, less because of the characters’ individual choices, behavior, and actions, and more because of their lack of depth or dimensionality and a script filled with clichés masquerading as lessons about the nature of art and the place of the artist in the larger world. Not that the cast doesn’t give their all to imbue the script with pathos and gravitas. They do. It’s just that the script fails to give their characters the gravitas and pathos they obviously needed.
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