It’s a pretty slow time for movies. The summer blockbuster season is over and the Oscar season hasn’t yet begun, so this is when studios sneak out films that even they know aren’t that great. This week I went to see The Words. I picked it because everyone was saying Bradley Cooper was actually good in it, and it’s about writing.
A struggling writer must face the consequences of his choice when he finds an old manuscript about a young soldier in Paris after the war and passes it off as his own.
With the war connections and the “writer at an event” framing device and the novel that documents a real life tragedy that happened in the past, The Words is trying really hard to be Atonement. Unfortunately, although The Words spends an awful lot of time talking about how moving everything is, it never quite gets around to actually being moving.
In order for a story to move us, we have to be able to immerse ourselves in it, to be affected emotionally by the characters, but The Words never lets us settle in. There are three different storylines which are each narrating the one below it. A the top level, writer Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) is being interrogated by Daniella (Olivia Wilde) some random girl at a signing for his book The Words, which is basically the movie.
CLAY: If I told you I wrote this movie we’re in, would you let me bone you?
DANIELLA: OMG, yes! I’m a sucker for pervy older dudes!
Clayton narrates the story of Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), a struggling writer living in New York City (naturally, because the cost of living there is so low). He lives with his wife Dora (Zoe Saldana), who complains that they have no money but doesn’t seem to have a real job either. After Rory’s manuscripts are rejected by agents, he finds a better one in an old briefcase and passes it off as his own, though he sort of kind of tries not to. And by “tries not to,” I mean he types it up, puts his name on it, and hands it to an agent, but he feels kind of bad about it.
RORY: So, honey, would you say this briefcase is old enough for it’s previous owner to be dead?
DORA: Probably, why?
RORY: Um, no reason.
The book, which he calls The Window Tears is a critical and commercial success, and Rory gets lots of money and awards, at which point an old man (Jeremy Irons) shows up and tells him the story about how HIS book came to end up in Rory’s hands.
OLD MAN: Surprise! I’m not dead. I’m also RIGHT BEHIND YOU!!
Once upon a time, when old man was young man (this is sounding a little like an SNL sketch) he looked like Ben Barnes and he was stationed in Paris after World War II, where he met a pretty French waitress (Nora Arnezeder) and fell in love. Something sad (but not tragic or surprising, like the movie keeps insisting) happens to him, whereupon he writes a book about it and then loses it.
Though to be fair, the story is mostly about smoochies.
Even if the bottom storyline, the Ben Barnes storyline that tells what happens in the supposedly amazingly moving book Rory didn’t really write, had been as amazingly moving as they claimed, it would still have been impossible to feel it. Ben Barnes is great, but every time he starts carrying you away with his performance, the stupid narrator jumps in and ruins it.
ME: Awwww! Ben’s got a baby!
NARRATOR: And then I had a baby…
ME: Oh my god, SHUT UP!
This happens with the Bradley Cooper storyline too. Bradley and Zoe do a good job, but every time you start to care about what happens to them, Dennis frigging Quaid will break in with HIS narration and ruin the flow. It’s supposed to be a big surprise who Dennis Quaid’s character is, but if you don’t figure it out in the first scene, you probably have something wrong with you, because it’s as obvious as the smarmy smile on his face.
Hello? Yes, I’m calling to complain about the annoying voice that’s been following me around.
The trailer (and the movie itself) are always banging on about the steep consequences of Rory’s decision to plagiarize the old man’s novel, making it seem like a cautionary tale for emerging writers, but there are two problems with this. 1) Plagiarism is only really a problem in academic circles. In fiction, everyone’s got too many of their own idea babies to steal yours, so it tends to be only the fresh faced newbies who worry about it. And 2) there aren’t actually any consequences. The movie thinks there are, but what happens isn’t that dire, isn’t really connected to the plagiarism, and can be probably be reversed if he got off his ass and did something about it.
RORY: I’m a bad boy.
DORA: That’s okay. Nothing will come of it anyway.
So do I recommend The Words? No. Definitely not. It’s irritating, unfinished, and actively impedes you from bonding with the characters. Don’t go see it. It will only make you angry that you wasted your ten bucks.