For the kind of person who doesn’t mind curling up with Faulkner instead of going out on a Friday night, The Words creates an intriguing world of complex themes and heartbreaking characters that deserve careful analysis.
The Words, which opened Sept. 7 to decidedly negative reviews, doesn’t have much in the way of plot. Starring Bradley Cooper and Zoë Saldana as Rory and Dora Jansen, a pair of college sweethearts in the early years of marriage, the film toys with questions of guilt and love and discusses the boundaries of fiction and reality.
Rory, a young writer struggling to get his first book published, discovers a manuscript from the 1940s and decides to pass off the work as his own — an act that leads to his immediate celebrity status in the literary world. When an old man (Jeremy Irons) approaches Rory and claims to be the author of the stolen manuscript, Rory must deal with his own increasing guilt and the loss of what he values most: his wife and his self-respect.
Outside of this emotionally driven narrative is the story of the older, bestselling author Clay Hammond, whom the audience soon discovers is reading the story of Rory and Dora from his own novel The Words. When Daniella (Olivia Wilde), an intellectual with a sensual streak, approaches Hammond with curiosities about his new book, he comes to grips with a dark past similar to that of his character’s. With the layered plot revolving around three major characters — Rory, the old man and Clay — the film takes the idea of “a story within a story” to a whole new level.
The problem lies not in the film’s incorporation of three major storylines but in the lengthy exposition given to each. Instead of taking an approach akin to that of L.A. Confidential or Crazy, Stupid, Love, in which pieces of each character’s story are slowly revealed as the films progress, The Words lumps its plot into three large segments; the audience first witnesses Rory’s story, then the old man’s, then Clay’s, a belabored technique which slows the pace of the film.
The film also fails to answer all of the questions it poses. Though there’s nothing wrong with incorporating heavy themes into a film, The Words gets bogged down in them. Among the film’s many topics are the necessity of suffering for art, the importance of valuing loved ones and the life-long consequences of our mistakes — heady topics that, while intriguing, seem cramped in a 96-minute film with so little action. Just as Rory struggles with the moral implications of stealing another man’s work, the audience is forced to carefully weigh each theme in order to gain anything from the film.
And when The Words attempts to leave audiences guessing with its ambiguous ending, it’s hard to muster up enough energy to care.
Still, The Words is not without its high points. The film is ripe with stunning performances from each of its principal actors.
Cooper tugs at audiences’ heartstrings with his ability to create a character that is alternately loveable and pitiable. As Rory switches from happily adoring his wife to painfully seeking forgiveness from her and the old man, Cooper delivers a character who is believable, demonstrating that he has talent outside of his crass Hangover persona.
Saldana, with her emotive facial expressions and on-screen charisma, perfectly embodies the role of the supportive homebody taken for granted. And though Quaid doesn’t occupy much screen time, his portrayal of Clay is appropriately tortured and cynical.
In addition, The Word’s incorporation of beautiful European scenery and detailed apartments make the film pleasant to watch. As the couple wanders through the streets of Paris on their honeymoon, the viewer gets a glimpse into a world of cobblestoned streets and cozy bookshops full of relics from the past.
Rory and Dora’s cozy New York City apartment is both charming and bohemian with bright colors and handmade gadgets that hint at the couple’s financial distress. Conversely, Clay’s apartment is distinctively cold and colorless, full of unpacked boxes and glaringly empty white walls.
The imagery in The Words, underscored by Marcelo Zarvos’ romantic orchestral score, at least makes the film easy on the eyes and ears.
The Words also has a way with language. The elegant writing of the film’s fictional novels leaves little question as to whether these characters are good writers, and the tense dialogue exchanged between Dora and Rory and between Daniella and Clay is both appropriate and relatable. And with Quaid as Clay narrating the events of the story, the film refreshingly combines standard voiceover with literary prose.
Ultimately when Hammond reads, “He had been confronted by everything he had aspired to be and by everything he would never become,” the audience can’t help but agree.
Much like Rory, The Words unfortunately doesn’t live up to its potential.