Best-selling author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) is reading his novel in front of a packed house of adoring fans, not the least of whom is enterprising graduate student Daniella (Olivia Wilde). The subject of the book is the murky world of writing, specifically plagiarism. A young, struggling writer named Rory (Bradley Cooper) works for years at trying to get published. Despite his failure to sell his various books, he still ends up marrying the beautiful Dora (Zoe Saldana), lands a job with a big publishing house, and work on his books in his spare time.
While honeymooning in Paris, Rory and Dora happen upon a beautiful old briefcase near Ernest Hemingway’s Paris abode. Dora purchases it for him, they take it home, and while transferring his stuff from his current folio to his new one, he stumbles across something: a manuscript. Rory reads it, presumably in a single night, and then decides that it’s quite possibly the best thing he’s ever read and it apparently has no author attribution. Hence, it’s free for the taking. After some goading from Dora, who doesn’t realize the retyped manuscript is someone else’s words, Rory submits it to publishers and finds himself catapulted from a nobody to a hotshot author in absolutely no time.
Then, the Old Man (Jeremy Irons in heavy makeup) shows up. He corners Rory in a park, tells him he likes his novel, and then proceeds to tell him an idea for a new novel about a punk kid who steals an old man’s lost manuscript and passes it off as his own. Whoops. Down another rabbit hole, Old Man tells Rory about the story behind the story. A Young Man (Ben Barnes), a beautiful French girl named Celia (Nora Arnezeder), and an epic tale of love, loss, and a lifetime of regrets.
The biggest flaw with The Words is that I never actually cared. At no point in the movie was I particularly invested in the film. It was beautifully shot, well-cast, well-acted, and pretty well directed, but… what was the point? Was there a point? It seemed like an exercise in crafting something, but it felt ultimately meaningless. The Words played out like one of those movies you see people watching in a movie. It fulfilled all the qualifications of a movie, but still felt hollow inside, like one of those chocolate bars full of air bubbles.
The plot is a series of stories. A novelist is reading from a book about a novelist who publishes a book that he stole from another man who wrote the book based on his real life tragic love affair with a beautiful French girl. So it’s a story within a story within another story, told in fictional flashback and dramatic interpretation via tons and tons of voice over. Basically, it’s like a ridiculous version of Inception, except replace dreams with books and good writing with melodrama.
The script, from Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal (who also directed), tries to have a big message, I think. At the very least, it tries to obfuscate its obvious plot at the very end by questioning all the motivations ascribed to characters throughout the film’s entire run. Some of the set pieces are good (Rory’s first confrontation with the Old Man) and some are mediocre to bad. It tries too hard to be smarter than it is, yet it also fiercely clings to its cliches, almost celebrating them.
While the script isn’t good, the actors really try hard to sell the story. Bradley Cooper is a bit of a hard sell as a writer, but when it’s framed with the device of Dennis Quaid telling a story about a writer, the casting makes much more sense. Zoe Saldana also puts a lot of energy in, but nobody puts more into a part than Jeremy Irons. He really digs into his role as the mysterious Old Man, perhaps overcompensating for having to act behind makeup and with a physical gimmick. As for Olivia Wilde, she’s pretty, but Nora Arnezeder is absolutely stunning as the pretty French girl that the Old Man can’t forget decades after the war ends. She’s got the kind of face that you’d go back to France for, that’s for sure. And unlike Olivia Wilde, she’s not a horrible actress.
There are lots of things to like about The Words. It looks beautiful, for starters. The WWII bits look great, and the modern day stuff makes great use of New York City. The directors seem to show some touch with their actors, and the movie moves at a good pace despite its many plot splits and creative use of time. The cast is fine and do as good a job with the material they have been given as possible.
Still, it all seems like it’s trying too hard to build up to that confusing ending. Had the movie excised the bookend and middle bits with Quaid and Wilde making it a story about a possibly fictional story, it would have been a far better movie. The Words wants to be more clever than its story will allow, and that makes it, surprisingly, just a little dumb as a consequence.