Brian Klugman & Lee Sternthal’s The Words is a film that is simultaneously not as clever as it thinks it is, and too clever for its own good. It’s about a story within a story within a story within a story, but the storytelling is so straightforward and mundane that despite good intentions and a serious, intelligent tone, the film becomes a real snooze to sit through.
The titular words were written by a young American man (Ben Barnes) living in Paris after WWII, married to a beautiful Parisian (Nora Arnezeder); they were a novel born out of great pain. They are the central story, but serve as a plot device, or MacGuffin: we’re told how brilliant they are, but never get to experience them for ourselves.
The young man doesn’t get to reap the rewards of his story, either, because his wife accidentally leaves them in a briefcase on a train. This so explicitly recalls the famous story of Hemingway’s lost suitcase that I was disappointed that the film never really follows up on the connection, content just to borrow this chapter from the writer’s life. Still, there are other references to Hemingway throughout the film – deeper analysis should reveal some thematic importance.
Unfortunately, The Words never earns that deeper analysis – right up until the final scene, everything is explained to us word-for-word, as if a writer is giving us a synopsis of his story. And that’s precisely what is happening.
Years after the young man loses his work, struggling New York author Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) finds the manuscript in the briefcase his wife Dora (Zoe Saldana) bought him in Paris.
You know what happens next, as The Words builds on an idea previously explored in A Murder of Crows, Lila, Lila, Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, and a number of other films and novels. The young man, now an old man (Jeremy Irons), sees his work in a bookstore, and confronts Rory about it.
These two stories are played out well enough; Irons, in particular, is excellent, as is the Paris-set story his character tells Rory, starring Barnes and Arnezeder. But everything is all so matter-of-fact and straightforward, and both stories are in dire need of some kind of satisfying conclusion.
That’s because both stories are part of a new novel that author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) is reading to a crowd at an award ceremony, and he only gets through the first couple chapters. We get some more of the story when he tells it to pretty young fan Daniela (Olivia Wilde), but it’s still left unfinished. And after how clearly everything is explained in the rest of the film, the finale leaves things confusingly ambiguous.
The Words is not poorly made in any respect (though the Quaid storyline doesn’t work as well as the rest of the film), and it’s kept watchable by a cast of talented performers, right down to the smallest roles – J.K. Simmons, Ron Rifkin, John Hannah, and others manage to make an impression in single-scene appearances. You won’t mind watching it, but it falls flat as drama, thriller, or romance, and fails to make itself interesting enough to work on an intellectual level.
I think The Words wanted to make some point about the nature of fiction and reality, and the connection between an author and his work. Deep stuff, but ultimately the themes here are muddled. You might be able to examine the film and draw some interesting conclusions, but it hardly seems worth the effort.