A film review by Craig J. Koban September 11, 2012


2012, PG-13, 96 mins.


Rory: Bradley Cooper / Clayton: Dennis Quaid / Dora: Zoe Saldana / Danielle: Olivia Wilde / Old Man: Jeremy Irons

Written and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal.

THE WORDS is a new drama that has some semi-compelling themes regarding unethical authorship, plagiarism, and a man driven to artistic dishonesty to compensate for his own lack of confidence and low self-worth.  Its underlining story of a struggling writer that’s trying to stand out in a field that turns him away is intriguing, showing us the slow downward spiral he takes when desperation kicks in and he succumbs to making the worst choice possible in a dicey moral quandary.   All of this is reinforced by Bradley Cooper’s fairly restrained and authentic performance.  He creates a troubled and deeply flawed protagonist that’s consumed with delusions of his own counterfeit grandeur as well as nagging and debilitating guilt. 

The problem with THE WORDS, though, is not that it’s uninteresting or lacks a nicely understated performance by its lead actor.  No, the real issue here with writer/directors Brian Klugman’s and Lee Sternthal’s feature film debut is that it never finds an equally fascinating and cohesive manner of distilling its gripping themes into a meaningful whole.  THE WORDS’ plot is like an onion, with layers revealing layers revealing further layers that its makers hope will make the film feel more multifaceted, but it actually only serves to distract and confound viewers.  The idea here to use a story-within-a-story-within-yet-another-story never germinates to the meaningful dramatic highs that Klugman and Sternthal most likely intended, leaving instead a film that feels too cluttered, too haphazardly assembled, and too ill-focused for its own good.  The overall shoddy structure of the film unavoidable betrays its good qualities. 

The first of the three “plots”, so to speak, involves an author named Clay Hammond (a very decent Dennis Quaid) that’s engaging in a public reading from his newest literary work, “The Words”, to a capacity crowd.   Olivia Wilde shows up as a post-graduate student that seems quite obsessed with Clay’s work and life story.  They strike up a flirtatious conversation during the reading’s intermission, after which they meet again during the cocktail reception that follows the program.  Clay decides to invite fetching student back to his Manhattan studio apartment. 



The rest of the film largely involves the second plot thread, which is actually the subject of Clay’s book that he was reading from that also forms a rather unnecessary voice-over narration throughout the rest of the film to provides a running commentary on the events.  In this second arc we meet a struggling writer named Rory Jansen (Cooper) that for years has tried to get noticed as a writer in the Big Apple with relatively no success, leaving him broke and deeply unsure of his future and talent.  After a shotgun wedding with his wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana), the pair honeymoons in Paris (how they afford to do so being relatively poor is never explained) where Rory finds a beautifully worn leather briefcase in a Parisian collectibles shop.  Dora buys it for him as a gift and they head back to America. 

After they get settled in, Rory makes a startling discovery that he reveals to no one, not even his new wife: a decades-old manuscript resides in the briefcase.  He feverously reads through it in one night and thinks it’s an undiscovered masterpiece.  Rory then does the unthinkable: he transcribes the entire story – word for word – on to his laptop, prints it off, and submits it as his own book to a local publisher that he works for as a mail clerk.  They predictably respond with thunderous adulation, believing Rory to be the next great literary titan. The book is published, becomes a worldwide critical and audience favorite, and intimately plunges Rory from obscurity to an instant celebrity author that's adored and revered…all built, of course, on a lie. 

The third and last story thread involves a mysterious old man (Jeremy Irons, caked in elderly makeup and having a field day with his crotchety, but oddly refined role) that follows Rory after he discovers that Rory’s book is actually plagiarized from his own manuscript that he wrote in post-World War II France, which his wife placed in the aforementioned briefcase and accidentally lost on a commuter train.  As the man confronts Rory with the damning knowledge of his indiscretion, he touchingly relays his own tragic story of love and loss, which led to him pouring out his wounded soul into the book that Rory would eventually steal from and pass off as his own. 

As stated, the performances are routinely fine in THE WORDS.  Bradley Cooper seems to have a real knack for playing likeable, vulnerable, yet arrogant and duplicitous-minded a-holes that we oddly root for in his last few films (see THE HANGOVER I and II and LIMITLESS).  What Cooper does is not easy: he has to relay a plausible motivation for Rory to commit the heinous act that he does and make it seem strangely justifiable.  What Rory does is inexcusable, to be sure, but he does it out of deeply entrenched insecurities and a life filled with occupational failure.  When he becomes successful his arrogance in the spotlight clouds his own perception of his inherent lies.  His scenes with the great Jeremy Irons – juicily chewing scenery – are among the film’s finest, and it’s kind of touchingly unexpected just how the old man deals with confronting Rory on his actions.

It’s a shame that the film’s scripting could not be as strong as its performances.  The real emotional epicenter of THE WORDS is Rory’s turn to the literary dark side and the undeniably moving and heart-breaking 1940’s chronicle of the old man finding his soul mate, marrying her, and then both of them facing a tragedy that no parent should have to deal with.  Then the film really labors to artificially add-on the story of Clay and the grad student that serves no dramatic purpose whatsoever, other than to superficially form a tie to the other two story threads.  The way the film connects the stories of Rory in the present with the old man of the past works, but the added coating of Clay’s arc to the film as a whole seems awkwardly introduced as an unneeded framing device for the film as a whole. 

THE WORD also never deals with one nagging logical loophole: How in the world did a manuscript reside in a leather briefcase through what must have been multiple owners over the course of nearly 70 years without ever being discovered by anyone?  Did it just sit in that same Parisian shop for seven decades collecting dust, never once attracting a purchaser?  Or, were its previous holders just bumbling and ill-sighted simpletons for not locating the manuscript that Rory seems to discover rather easily in the present?   The film never really bothers to deal with such nagging and obvious questions, not to mention that Rory’s wife never seems to question him on his radical and immediate transformation from a just-okay novelist to one that deserves comparisons with Hemmingway.  Ultimately, the final word on THE WORDS is that it wants to ruminate on a captivating moral conundrum and how weak-willed decisions later plague a young, anxiety-plagued mind; it just fumbles around too much with finding a way to relay such a potentially rich storyline.

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