Ever since I saw the first trailer for “The Words,” I began counting the days until it opened. As someone who has tried to teach or practiced the art of writing most of my life, I’ve always enjoyed films dealing with authors. (You’ll notice I said “tried to teach” writing because I’m not sure it’s possible to teach someone to write.) One of my favorite films is “Finding Forrester,” which deals with the relationship between a reclusive writer and a brilliant high school student with an incredible writing talent.
I was hoping “The Words” would be every bit as good, but then I began seeing and hearing nothing but negative reviews. I was stunned. How could a film that looked this outstanding from its trailers be as awful as all the high-powered critics were saying it was. After all, what do people who write about movies really know about them anyway?
Well, you have a choice. You can listen to the “real” critics or you can listen to me, and, if you’re listening, I’m here to tell you “The Words” is a pretty damn good movie. The acting is excellent, and the story within a story within a story structure is fascinating. If you trust me, read on.
“The Words” tells two intriguing stories within another story that frames the film. The framing plot involves a renowned author named Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), who is presenting a public reading of excerpts from his new novel aptly titled “The Words.”
The main characters in Hammond’s book are Rory Jensen (Bradley Cooper) and his wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana). Rory wants nothing more in life than to be a successful author, but he just can’t seem to get the words to flow onto the page the way he wants them to. Despite his struggles, Dora never loses faith in him and continues to encourage him, first while they are living together and later after their marriage.
While Rory and Dora are on their honeymoon in Paris, they are browsing through a shop where Rory discovers an old leather briefcase, and Dora buys it for him. And this gift is the genesis for the third story in the film.
After the Jensens return home, Rory continues to labor with his writing, but then one night he finds a pocket in the briefcase that he hadn’t noticed before, and inside it is the manuscript for a novel telling the story about a young soldier and his wife who suffer a horrible tragedy shortly after World War II.
Rory is so intrigued by the story that he retypes it word for word, and when Dora finds it, she thinks Rory has written it. Because she is so excited about the book, her husband doesn’t have the heart to tell her it’s not his work. Rather than disappoint her, he passes the manuscript off as his own, a publisher snaps it up, and Rory becomes an award-winning author.
Shortly after receiving a prestigious honor for his book, Rory is sitting in the park one day, and an old man (Jeremy Irons) sits down next to him. The two begin chatting, and ultimately, much to Rory’s horror, he realizes the book he has published is from a manuscript the old man lost years ago. Now Rory is faced with the dilemma of living the life of a plagiarist or admitting his crime to the literary world.
One of the main keys to any good drama is that the actors manage to make us care about the characters they portray, and “The Words” is a prime example of this. From the time we first meet Rory and Dora, we are drawn to them because of their complete devotion to one another. Dora never wavers in her faith that Rory will make it as a writer despite his doubts about himself.
Because the chemistry between Cooper and Saldano is so good, we often forget they are acting and believe they are real people, and although the film actually tells three stories, theirs is the main one. In the film’s production notes Cooper offered an analysis of what makes the movie unique.
“The script is very seductive. It really allows actors to explore how forceful relationships can be. It operates on different levels. It’s a tremendous love story but in a way, it also has the feel of a thriller. You’re constantly trying to figure out how far Rory will go before his whole world starts tumbling down. It revolves around this idea of authentic talent, whether your dreams can be matched by that talent, what price you’re willing to pay to achieve success and what that success ultimately means to you.”
Anyone who teaches or has taught writing will tell you plagiarism is the unpardonable sin for a writer at any level, but what is interesting about this film is Cooper makes Rory such a likeable character that despite what he does, he elicits our sympathy instead of incurring our disrespect. When Rory first learns the truth from the old man, Cooper is so successful in conveying his character’s overwhelming guilt that he makes us hope he will somehow make things right.
Of course Academy Award winner Irons’ portrayal of the old man is superb, as you would expect. He makes us feel his character’s bitterness and sorrow for what he has endured throughout his life, but he also endears his character to us for the way he handles what Rory has done.
Ben Barnes plays Irons’ character as a young man and Nora Arnezeder portrays his wife, Celia, in the film’s other love story and the subject of the old man’s manuscript. Their tragic tale unfolds in Paris shortly after World War II, and in addition to boasting excellent acting, these sequences also are fascinating because of the sets, props, and costumes.
As I mentioned earlier, the entire movie is framed within Hammond’s public reading of excerpts from his novel, which tells the story of Rory and Dora. Quaid is convincing in the part of the author, and Olivia Wilde plays a literary groupie who has found a way into the reading, and she ends up in Hammond’s apartment, where she presses him for more details about the Rory and Dora saga
Although some viewers may not care for the film’s rather vague and ambiguous ending, I liked it because it will keep you thinking long after the closing credits have rolled by. Thus, despite all the slings and arrows showered upon it by many renowned critics, I give “The Words” a final score of eight.
And that’s my last word on the matter.