Mark Reviews Movies

The Words


2 Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Jeremy Irons, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language and smoking)

Running Time: 1:36

Release Date: 9/7/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 6, 2012

So much about The Words depends on a last-minute revelation and summation of the thematic meaning behind its trio of stories that everything beforehand is, by way of the nature of maintaining the central mystery, dramatically inert. That the movie asserts none of this really matters in the end is, in its favor and against it, honest. The ending, which is—on the surface at least—an effective act of redefining everything that has come before it, truly does manage to make us reconsider certain pieces of the narrative, including the entire second act. The only problem is that, in the re-examination, we realize just how much of the material's potential is left unexplored—how little substance there actually is here.

With three central characters and a plot that weaves through three different time periods and across the line between reality and fiction, there is plenty of opportunity to delve deeper than the bare surface of this story, but Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, who co-wrote the screenplay and co-directed the movie, say only what needs to be said. The actual thematic meaning behind these events is treated as a twist.

The three-part structure revolves around three men. Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) is the new star of the literary world, having just written a book that has come to great critical and commercial success. An old man (Jeremy Irons) has taken a particular interest in this author, watching him from a shadowy corner and imagining that the falling rain doesn't touch him.

We know this particular detail about the old man's observations because of the third party, another writer named Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) who is participating in a reading of his most recent book and narrates the first act with descriptive details such as that one. Despite filling in a lot of gaps in the characters' development, it's not an intrusive voice-over.

Hammond's story is about Rory, who, four years prior to his overwhelming success, was a struggling writer in New York City. He and his girlfriend—later wife—Dora (Zoe Saldana) have moved into a fixer-upper loft. He gets by financially with loans from his father (J.K. Simmons), who agreed to help his son out while he dedicated himself to writing full-time, while he tries to finish his first novel. The well of support is running dry, though, and it's time to find a job. He takes one at a publishing firm and begins to let this new life take over his writing. He and Dora marry and spend their honeymoon in Paris, where she buys him an old leather case that he finds at an antique store.

Time passes, and Rory's book receives rejection letter after rejection letter. Putting away his years-long work in the case, he discovers an old manuscript in one of the pockets. He reads it in one sitting and, as Hammond puts it, is confronted with everything he wishes he could be and the realization that he will never become it.

This is as deep as Klugman and Sternthal get with these characters. Admittedly, that sense of inherent failure is a profound one, but aside from an outburst during dinner with friends who are doing what they want in life, Rory's character becomes nothing more than the impetus for what follows. He decides to rewrite the manuscript he found—word for word, with no changes. His motive is an innocent one: He just wants to feel what it would be like for the words to come through him. Dora reads it, assuming it's his, and insists he give the book to someone at his work.

What we already know from the beginning of the story follows, and the old man enters the picture. He compliments Rory and eventually reveals that he knows this story firsthand. After all, he wrote it.

There are only a few ways for this to move forward, and the screenplay admirably takes a more subdued approach. On the flipside, it's also the path of least resistance. The old man tells Rory his story without much flourish, as flashbacks of his younger self (Ben Barnes) and the woman he loved (Nora Arnezeder) play out for us. Irons' narration lends the straightforward tale of star-crossed lovers more gravitas than it deserves; it's little more than a post-war melodrama.

There really is not much more to the movie. Thematically, it eventually progresses with some intrigue as both Rory and the old man are living with some regret, perhaps seeking forgiveness for their respective transgressions.

It's not until the epilogue that features Hammond, who previously has no identity outside of the omniscient narrator (apart from a short interlude of dialogue with a pretty fan (Olivia Wilde) whose motivation seems to be wanting to find out the content of his book without paying for it), finally explaining where the movie's conflict lies. It's not the external forces at work but the internal ones, and while The Words does finally allow us to appreciate that fact, it's still only scratching the surface. The movie ends where its actual story begins.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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