“The Words” tells the story of a successful old writer telling the story of a struggling young writer who steals an old story from an old writer who eventually catches on and confronts him by telling his story.
As you can tell, there’s a lot of storytelling going on.
It’s not hard to keep track of, but it does create too many unnecessary layers to work through surrounding the primary story. It waters down the emotional weight, and creates unfortunate periods of time that the audience has to sit through, hoping to get back to what the movie should really be all about.
At a book reading, author Clayton Hammond (Dennis Quaid) reads excerpts of his latest novel. In it, a struggling young author (Bradley Cooper) who’s almost given up on his dreams of writing finds a typed manuscript in a attaché case he purchases while on his honeymoon in Paris. When he reads the book, he’s fascinated by it. On a whim, he decides to type it up. His new wife (Zoe Saladana) reads it on his computer, thinking its his, and fawns over him for writing something so brilliant. Thus, his decision to publish the book as his own is born. And it’s met with resounding acclaim and success. But when the real author of the novel (Jeremy Irons) discovers the deceit, there’s a reckoning to be had… beginning with him recounting the true tale of woe which inspired him to write it. Back in the “Real World”, Clayton Hammond has issues of his own. A sexually aggressive young fan (Olivia Wilde) is pushing him for details as to how auto-biographical the story really is.
“The Words” is very, very “wordy” for a movie. There are multiple levels of narration going on. Quaid, Cooper and Irons all take turns narrating portions of the film. In addition to all the talk, a lot of the talk is about writing. The struggle to come up with ideas, the feelings associated with the process, the impact of the finished work, etc etc… It gets to be more than a little tedious.
The primary issue with “The Words”, however, is that it’s trying to operate on too many levels of storytelling. The “old man” tells his story to the plagiarizing Rory Jansen (Cooper’s character), and in turn the whole story is being told Clayton Hammond. It’s one too many “levels”, which results in the whole thing feeling convoluted. The plagiarizing story at the core has some genuine emotional value to it. Jeremy Irons does a great job in his role as a man whose life has passed him by, and the post war story that he recounts about the original writing of the book is actually pretty good. The rest of that segment… the Bradley Cooper/Zoe Saldana romance, and Cooper’s under-explored “moment of reckoning” after meeting the man who he stole the story from, is not as good. But the movie really loses steam when it shifts to the Dennis Quaid/Olivia Wilde “level”. It’s simply nowhere near as compelling. It’s the very definition of “tacked on”.
It’s really a poor choice. The central drama is actually fairly compelling. If they had found a better way to extend that out to a feature-length film (an easy recommendation is to beef up the fall-out that Cooper’s character experiences… the “price” being paid section), there’s certain elements here which could have made for a good film, primarily the excellent performance turned in by Jeremy Irons as a wistful old man.