"We authors, Ma'am..." So wrote Benjamin Disraeli to his sovereign Queen Victoria when he served as Her Majesty's Prime Minister. If anything, Disraeli was one of the shrewdest Prime Ministers in British history, and such was his influence over Her Majesty that he turned her away from the liberalism of her late husband, Prince Albert, to his brand of imperial building conservatism.
Such are the powers of words. They can change the course of history.
Pity that The Words, so earnestly trying to be a deep film, comes up short, almost comically so.
The actual plot of The Words is a bit convoluted, given that we get two or three stories that are locked each within the other. If we go by logic, the plot of The Words should be about Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), who is reading from his book, The Words.
The Words (the book) slips into the main story of The Words (the movie). Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) is a struggling writer, and by struggling, I mean he has been writing for years with nothing to show for it except a hot girlfriend, Dora (Zoe Saldana). He is told that he is a great writer, but that his latest work, a novel he titled The Burning Tree, is too 'interior' (which I figure means he writes about things of the soul and thus, he isn't commercial like a James Patterson or John Grisham).
Despite this, Rory carries on, even finding time to make an honest woman out of Dora. It is on their honeymoon in Paris (which I imagine was partly paid by his father as well as by Rory's job of mail clerk at a publishing house, which in turn begs the question as to exactly how much mail clerks make, but I digress). While there, Dora finds an antique briefcase which she thinks Rory might carry his works.
Things are going along with them settling into life together, but Rory is still yearning to achieve literary success. One day, Rory finds a manuscript inside the briefcase, and he types it out on his laptop. While he has no interest in publishing this work, merely doing it to experience what good writing feels like, Dora accidentally comes across it and pushes him to present it to the editor where he works.
He too recognizes it as a work of genius, and thus Rory Jansen is the new toast of the literati set with 'his' book, The Window Tears (a young man's journey through love and loss in 1940s Paris, if The New York Times Bestseller List descriptive guide is to be believed).
Yes, The Window Tears (and that's 'tears' as in crying, not 'tears' as in breaking).
Of course, there is more to this story. Clay continues his story, with eager audience member Daniella (Olivia Wilde) at intermission already hinting she wants more than an autograph.
As Rory enjoys his success, having published those 'interior' books he couldn't get arrested with earlier, he is met at the park by The Old Man (Jeremy Irons, and that IS the way he's billed...The Old Man). The Old Man knows the truth because it is HE who wrote The Window Tears, many years ago, in Paris.
Now we enter the third (so far) story in The Words. The Old Man had been stationed in Paris after the end of the Second World War, when he was the Young Man (Ben Barnes, and yes, that is his billing, Young Man). While there, the Young Man meets, falls in love, and marries the beautiful French waitress Celia (Nora Arnezeder). In Paris, he was inspired to look for more to his life by the writings of Hemingway (who, curiously, was also Rory's hero...I can only imagine what would happen if I had ever read him, but again I digress). Now that he's returned and back with Celia, he continues to write, but again, nothing.
They have a daughter, but she quickly falls in and dies. A distraught Celia leaves the Young Man, and in a fit of writing orgy he pours his heart out onto the page, putting his story on paper and creating a masterpiece along the way.
So to recap, we have the story of a writer who wrote the story of a writer who stole the story of a writer who wrote a thinly-veiled story of his own life.
The Young Man goes to Celia to show her his work, and she is overcome. However, upon returning to Paris she accidentally leaves it on the train, and thus it is lost to history...until now. The Old Man then goes, leaving a guilt-stricken Rory. Rory confesses all to Dora (who is upset) and his editor (who is angry).
After the reading, Daniella wants to know how it end. Clay tells her the Old Man wants nothing from Rory except to say that he will recover from his lapse of judgment, the Old Man shortly afterwards dies, but while Rory chickened out and didn't tell the truth there was still a price: Dora left him. Oh, and there's one last twist that pushes The Words down into a bizarre scenario that makes things slightly illogical.
This is primarily due to the end of The Words, where it is strongly suggested but not overtly stated that Clay Hammond is really Rory Jansen and thus The Words (the book) serves as a confession to his sins. Now, I've tried to think about this and have found one of two things.
If The Words (the book) is a thinly-veiled telling of Hammond/Jansen's first success (which was fraudulent), it then would stand to reason that Hammond's recent separation from his own wife (which he mentions to Daniella) might raise suspicions about how close The Words (the book) is to Hammond's own life.
I thought about this when coming to the end of The Words (the movie) because I thought The Words (the book) had to be a novel because if it had been a non-fiction book about 'Rory Jansen', everyone would have known the story (thus negating Daniella's need to find out what the ending is). However, if The Words (the book) is really Hammond's story, then it really cheats the audience because we are NEVER given the suggestion that Hammond and Jansen are/might be one and the same.
The mere fact that The Words (the movie) does not state it one way or the other pushes the film further from what could have been an interesting premise. You have in The Words a story-upon-story-upon story structure that soon we forget exactly what story one should be focusing on. Is it the Young Man's story? Ostensibly it should be about Rory's story, but by throwing in Hammond (and by throwing in the Hammond MAY BE Rory twist) The Words soon ties itself in knots that it didn't need to.
Sometimes simplicity is best (given the Hemingway fixation, I'm surprised Klugman and Sternthal didn't get Papa's ideas about keeping things simple and short).
As a digression, I kept wondering about how she lost this manuscript on the train. They didn't have a Lost & Found section at the Metro? The Words establishes that she had just returned from the country when she lost the briefcase, so it couldn't have been more than a day between loss and discovery of loss. The Young Man runs frantically to the train station, looking for that train to find his life's work, but all I could think of was, "GO TO THE OFFICE AND SEE IF ANYONE TURNED IN A USELESS BRIEFCASE!"
One thing I detested in The Words is that The Window Tears was seen automatically as this magical, brilliant, unquestioned work of genius, a work of such rare quality that everyone within its presence was overwhelmed to tears. Geez, even such established masterworks as Pride & Prejudice or Catcher in the Rye have detractors. It all seems a little too fantastical to imagine the entire world to fall at the feet of The Window Tears.
A BIG problem with The Words is Marcelo Zarvos' score. Already from the opening the music tells us this is a 'serious' film and should be treated as such. The excessively serious score only serves to make things even more unintentionally laughable, as if everyone is trying so hard to sell this as a deep and serious work of art when it is quickly spinning out of control.
The very British Jeremy Irons as an AMERICAN? He doesn't even bother sounding Yankee, making the flashback scenes even more bizarre.
Olivia Wilde's character as this book groupie-type? Seriously, she came across as almost a stalker-like person with her telling Hammond she knew everything about him (then why bother asking how the book ends, I thought. Surely someone as quasi-obsessed as Daniella would have read The Words by now).
The voice-overs (Sweet Mother of Mercy, how I HATE voice-overs). Even that I might forgive if the dialogue weren't so predictable. "...or the loudest sound in the world," Hammond speaks. Even before he said it I'd already shouted out, "SILENCE", which wouldn't you know it, turned out to be "the loudest sound in the world". However did I know that?
We also have a discrepancy of sorts. As The Old Man tells his story about his book, he talks about "my daughter" (like the one in the book) but then says "there was nothing he could do", as if he were quoting from The Window Tears. It is trying to have it both ways: have The Window Tears both be and not be The Old Man's life story.
It would have helped if they'd settled for one of them.
Finally, as to our leads, Cooper didn't have much to work with. His scene where he drunkenly confesses all to Saldana is the least convincing drunk confession and shocked reaction in recent memory. Also, if you think on it, Rory really doesn't suffer much from all this: he never told, and any guilt was, to coin a word, 'interior'. He might have fared better in denying everything...after all, what case did The Old Man actually have?
You might have had a good film, the one they are so desperate to make, but The Words got in the way.