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The Words | Review

In Need of a Thesaurus: A Tepid Debut Feature With Little to Say

Brian Klugman Lee Sternthal The Words PosterFor a film centered on the literary world using literary devices to unfold itself, The Words, the directorial debut of directing duo Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, sure in the hell suffers from some tepid writing. A three tiered narrative proves to be the vicious undoing of the film, an ambitious moral tale that’s already been told, several times over. While the directing/screenwriting duo managed to assemble a lucrative cast for their first outing, something must have gotten lost in translation from the page to the screen.

The Words opens with famous author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) reading portions of his latest novel, which shares the same title as this film. As he reads, the story of Rory (Bradley Cooper) and Dora Jansen (Zoe Saldana) unfolds. Rory is a struggling writer, the author of two rejected manuscripts, holding his head above water with the help of his business owner father (J.K. Simmons). But when Rory and Dora tie the knot and honeymoon in Paris (his character is obsessed with the expat presence there, not unlike Owen Wilson’s author character in 2011’s Midnight In Paris) he discovers a handwritten manuscript inside a leather satchel Dora buys at an antique shop.

Rory falls in love with the tragic, romantic novel, and types it, word for word, onto his laptop. When Dora “accidentally” reads the manuscript, she’s moved to tears, telling her husband she just knew he had beautiful things buried deep. Since he’s working as a janitor-type in a publishing office, he foists the manuscript off as his own. After some time passes, you can predict correctly that the manuscript is published and Rory becomes an overnight literary sensation, winning accolades and awards everywhere. But it’s not long before someone, unceremoniously introduced as ‘the old man’ (Jeremy Irons), picks up a copy and confronts Rory with his misdeeds. Meanwhile, we’re treated to interruptions of this story with Quaid’s book reading and seduction of a young book groupie (Olivia Wilde) along with flashbacks of the old man’s story.

While The Words is certainly an ambitious endeavor, it fails on every front, perhaps a victim to the adage of quality vs. quantity. First of all, the moral grey area surrounding the stealing of another’s manuscript has been used to much greater effect in recent fare like 2010’s You Will Meet A Dark Stranger and 2002’s Morvern Callar, and this film’s moral high ground seems ironic, given that the core narrative thrust is a recycled/pirated idea already. What’s worse is the double framing, completely neutering the “real” characters of the narrative from being at all necessary. Furthermore, Quaid, a generally unnatural performer, is forced to narrate some of the worst literary prose perhaps ever to be read aloud at a book reading, his disinterested, monotonous drone cutting in over scenes with Cooper and Saldana like some bored god foretelling the doom of a dull, pedantic species. Only tasked with reading the first two portions of the novel, we finally understand that the purpose of Wilde’s annoying starfucker role is so that Quaid can then paraphrase the end of his novel for her while he leads her to his literary lair.

In truth, Cooper and Saldana’s segment really doesn’t fare any better, with the latter being thrown into the thankless role of a supportive spouse. While Cooper’s demeanor and visage hardly bring to mind a literary soul (though he was an also ‘author’ in 2011’s Limitless) the ridiculousness sets in around the time Irons appears on the scene, a man that doesn’t demand any payment from Cooper’s theft, but only some time to tell his story. This seems to prove unbearable to the passive author, who pursues the old man, begging to make things right. As the audience, our payoff is to learn what was in the old man’s manuscript, and the war time tragedy it documents. Unfortunately, not one of these three scenarios manages to be tragic, moving, or memorable, culminating in one stodgy piece of pretentious exposition that suffers perilously from periphrasis.

Reviewed on January 25 at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival – PREMIERES Programme.
96 Mins.

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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