Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival
Simply put, the danger in making a movie about a great novelist is that screenwriters are so seldom great novelists themselves. Take The Words, an entire film predicated on the idea that Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) is a fabulously successful and universally acclaimed author; his work is good enough to pay for a giant Manhattan apartment, to draw a huge crowd for a reading and book release party, and to make Olivia Wilde want to get in his pants. As the film begins, he walks up to the podium to do a reading from his latest novel, and that's where the trouble starts.
You see, he's a terrible writer. His book--which is read, at length, in voicver-over--is astonishingly pedestrian prose, stiff and stilted. Sample excerpt: "And on a Friday afternoon, they were married at City Hall. They honeymooned in Paris." Another: "It was a crisp and clear autumn morning. The old man was dressed exactly as the day before." Okay, last one: "Finally, the great writer Roy Jansen was forced to take a day job." If I may paraphrase Capote, that's not writing, that's screenwriting.
Most of The Words is spent showing the story he is telling, making it effectively a book-within-a-movie. Hammond's story is that of Rory (Bradley Cooper), a struggling young New York writer who can't catch a break. He slaves over his magnum opus, which is met with a flurry of rejection letters; his father (J.K. Simmons) tells him it's time to give up and get that day job. But when he and Dora (Zoe Saldana) are on the Parisian honeymoon, he finds an old attaché case in an antique shop; inside, he discovers a typewritten manuscript that moves him deeply. For reasons he can't fully explain, he retypes it, which leads to Dora discovering it and assuming it's his, which leads to him deciding that maybe it is. And then the real author (Jeremy Irons) shows up.
As soon as Irons arrives, the entire movie recalibrates--there's suddenly something very interesting going on at its center, and when Irons drops his bombshell, it gives the picture a jolt. Unfortunately, writer/directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal have the shafted scribe tell his story in a drawn-out, dull, long post-WWII flashback sequence (so that's a flashback within a book within a movie, if you're keeping score), which moves like molasses; it feels like they're trying to turn the flimsy story into an epic, a mini-English Patient, and the results are cinematic Sominex.
Back to Irons, who sneers, "Maybe now, you've got your next book" and leaves Rory to deal with his tortured conscience. What will he do? Will he jeopardize his career to do the honorable thing? Will he disappoint his wife? And, most pressingly, if Wilde's character is such a superfan of Quaid's famous writer, why does she show up so late for his reading, am I right?
There are a few commendable elements: the aforementioned Irons turn, for one, and the stylish photography (particularly in that endless flashback sequence). Saldana gets two very fine scenes: one after first reading his book that isn't his, and then a later mirror scene when she is told the truth. The lines are weak sauce, but her intensity and believability gives them the gravity they so badly need. And while Cooper isn't doing much of anything new, the role is a fine showcase for his oily charm.
But The Words is a ponderous movie, tinny and schematic, and its ending revelation is visible well before it comes over the horizon. And frankly, its problems all start with those voice-overs. Early on, J.K. Simmons's stern father character advises his son on the importance of knowing your own limitations. It's advice that the creators of The Words would've been wise to heed.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.