Finding a voice in another’s tragedy
By Jen Chaney
Friday, September 7, 2012
“The Words” could have been a timely commentary on the aftershocks of plagiarism, a study of literary thievery that might have inadvertently added fresh perspective to the ongoing conversation about why writers like Jonah Lehrer engage in ethical lapses.
It isn’t. Instead, “The Words” -- a first-time directorial effort from Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, who also wrote the screenplay -- is a well-acted but narratively limp indie that’s undermined by a failure to connect emotionally with its audience. It’s a film that intentionally blurs the line between reality and fiction and, as a result, never creates real or fantasy worlds that are remotely believable.
The central plot revolves around Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), a determined novelist who continues to borrow cash from his dad (the ever affably grumpy J.K. Simmons) so he can focus on the futile effort of getting his first book published. While honeymooning in Paris with his uber-supportive and uber-attractive wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana), Rory discovers a weathered leather satchel in a tiny antique shop. Nestled inside is an anonymous manuscript of a spectacular novel.
Rory reads the manuscript, then decides to peck out the whole thing verbatim on his laptop just to know how it feels to have placed such brilliant sentences into a Word document. But then hot wifey reads it and thinks he has finally found his gift, and he’s unable to confess he’s actually not that gifted. The next thing everyone knows, a novel with the unfortunately cringey title “The Window Tears” is published and turns Rory into the non-erotic, literary fiction equivalent of E.L. James. He’s not just a man of letters, he’s the Man of Letters, even though not one of the letters in his breakthrough work is technically his own.
Of course, the actual author of that manuscript eventually tracks him down. He turns out to be Jeremy Irons -- sporting a scraggly beard that fully conveys his (unnamed) character’s loneliness. He tells Rory the whole story of how that work of fiction came to be via a sepia-toned, post-World War II flashback that rightly makes Rory feel guilty.
Just in case those two plot tracks weren’t enough for you, there’s a third in which Dennis Quaid -- as another very successful author named Clay Hammond -- reads from his own novel about a struggling writer named Rory Jansen. When he isn’t reading, Clay flirts and argues with a young and improbably beautiful admirer played by Olivia Wilde.
If all this sounds confusing, it’s actually not that hard to follow. It just isn’t terribly effective. The Quaid story line in particular seems to exist mainly so we can hear his ongoing voiceover narration about what’s happening to Rory, a conceit that violates the first thing most instructors teach in Creative Writing 101: Show, don’t tell.
Klugman and Sternthal deserve credit for guiding convincing performances from their cast, particularly Cooper, who grew up with the duo in suburban Philadelphia and threw his recently acquired Hollywood clout behind their project as its executive producer. While People’s Sexiest Man Alive may not look like a struggling writer -- or for that matter, a struggling anything -- he does a convincing job conveying the anguish of a 30-something afraid of nothing more than his own failure. Saldana matches him nicely, imbuing her Dora with a strength that makes it easy to forget that her character, as written, isn’t much more than a pretty accent wall in a room of her husband’s own.
Where “The Words” ultimately falls apart is in its attention to detail. Most of the notes scrawled by this critic during a recent screening were questions that began with either “how” or “why,” as in “How did Cooper and Saldana afford a honeymoon in Paris when they apparently have to borrow money from J.K. Simmons?”
These are small things, but as any writer knows, it’s those tiny shards of authenticity that ultimately make us invest in a story. For the record, it also doesn’t help that the allegedly genius authors in this film craft prose that is often hackneyed and pretentious. (First rule of making a movie about writing: Make sure the prose in that movie’s screenplay is actually good.)
“You have to choose between life and fiction,” Quaid’s Hammond tells Wilde’s Danielle at one point. “The two are very close but they never actually touch.”
In great novels and in great movies, though, it feels like they do. In “The Words,” life and fiction are thematically intertwined, but otherwise, they seem miles apart.
Contains brief, strong language and smoking.