Subtle "Words" Proves Worthy Of Capable Cast

“The Words” is an elegant piece of entertainment, replete with an understated but sweeping score, unexpected period piece vignettes, and melodramatic but universal themes. The film is curiously structured as a story within a story within a story, but first-time writers and directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal mostly succeed in their quest to tell a conventional story in an unconventional way. The performances are unquestionably enjoyable and the film’s genuine classiness allows it to rise above indie clichés and traverse different genres with ease.

The narrative is without discernible act markers, but consists of three distinct layers. The first – and the least effective – is that of Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), a bestselling author doing a public reading of his latest book, “The Words.” When Hammond takes a break between selections, he meets an attractive grad student, Danielle (Olivia Wilde), who takes a great interest in the author and his work. The film cuts in and out of Hammond’s lecture hall performance, with his narration over the top, as we see his work come to life.

The second layer of the film, and its focal point, is that of Hammond’s characters – an aspiring writer, Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), and his wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana). Rory can’t catch the break he’s looking for and his work is continually dismissed as too esoteric – a fitting way to foreshadow a rather cryptic finale. Eventually, Rory discovers a lost, unpublished novel in a Parisian antique shop. Upon claiming the work as his own, he’s showered with adoration and success, from his agent, his wife, and ultimately, the public. His subsequent mental anguish is palpable, but too fleeting to fully expound the seriousness of his lie.

The third tier of the story sprouts organically from the second, as the novel’s rightful author (Jeremy Irons) privately approaches his plagiarist. “The Old Man,” as the character is addressed, reveals the real life inspiration (and the pain) behind the novel, and the extended WWII-era flashback scenes give the piece a radically different feel. Even so, the transitions are relatively seamless (the film’s broad approach lends itself to interconnectedness), and Irons shines with what’s essentially a 20-minute monologue.

While the film’s successes are noted, so are its missteps. Dennis Quaid’s delivery is stilted and his readings are unworthy of an allegedly popular adult novelist. His Clay Hammond should be the anchor of the entire film, but his performance and the writers’ portrayal of him is frustrating to the end. Additionally, the Olivia Wilde character is only present to give Hammond someone to talk to. Most importantly, the loophole of the picture – and it’s a major one – is that it never has to present any of the supposed brilliant literature that its story is based on. Visually, we see fragments, but references to the work of Rory and “The Old Man” are only made in passing.

There’s a peculiar calmness and steadfastness to “The Words,” especially coming off of the summer movie season, but its rejection of trashiness and violence (places it could have gone rather easily) is what makes it refreshing. In fact, a handful of obvious but superfluous f-words were clearly removed in post-production. Cooper and Irons give standout performances and their rapport breathes plenty of life to the riskiest section of the story. Even the clumsy conclusion is designed to keep audiences talking long after the theater lights come up. “The Words” isn’t so much about the end result as it is about the painful process of writing, and to anyone that’s ever put pen to paper, fingertips to keyboard, or just made a life-changing mistake, its themes should resonate. But, please, resist the urge to copy/paste this particularly breathtaking analysis and give the film a look for yourself.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: September 7, 2012
Studio: CBS Films
Director: Brian Klugman, Lee Sternthal
Screenwriter: Brian Klugman, Lee Sternthal
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Irons, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde, Zoe Saldana
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language and smoking)