Films that dare to explore the nuanced art of writing - indeed, the mind of The Writer - are dicey endeavors, always. They become all the dicier when writer's block becomes a factor. In this case, it's not any of the on-screen writers suffering under the condition; it's the screenwriters. Unfortunately for THE WORDS, the screenwriters are also the directors, Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal. Considering that the pair's biggest prior joint credit was the story for 2010's TRON: LEGACY, it may come as no surprise that this latest effort is a poorly paced and uneventful journey. It's also evident that they are quite enamored with it, the film's unearned self-importance inflating slowly and resulting in a level of subtle irritation mixed with good old-fashioned boredom. The end result is a film that is simply "off". Awkwardly, the audience can sense the cinema equivalent of writer's block permeating the proceedings while the filmmakers go on simply unaware.
Tipping us off right away that this is a "book movie" is a nice, new thick tone lying on a tidy desk in the absolute lower right portion of the frame. The spine simply reads "The Words", the lack of an author's name immediately betraying the off-ness of this film. (Later when a character picks up this book to look at it, there is
an author's name on the spine. A second printing within the course of an hour?) The author of this book is one Clay Hammond, played by Dennis Quaid, looking as though birds were pecking at his hair. Hammond's reading/narration (sharing his book to a roomful of literature-philes) is the framework for the movie's central story - that of one Rory Jansen, played by Bradley Cooper.
Jansen is a cliché, pure and simple. He spends the first half of his arc feeling sorry for himself, since his professional writing dreams haven't come true. When they do come true in the second half, by means of cheating, he must weigh the cost of such success. He starts off broke, then gets married to the beautiful Zoe Saldana, who, no matter how hard the film tries, cannot make her pass for a plain Jane domestic wife. (The old baseball cap she sports while happily doing the dishes doesn't cut it.) During their cinematically routine honeymoon in Paris, she buys him an old leather satchel. After bringing it home and carrying it around for a few weeks, he discovers he's been lugging around a 200+ page English language manuscript, which was hidden away in it. Naturally, this isn't just arbitrary notes or blank sheets of paper - this is like, The Best Book Ever Written. Also naturally, Jansen keeps this discovery a secret from his wife. (Somehow resisting, for the sake of the plot - so she can be disappointed in him later - the natural urge to call out "Hey honey, look at what I just found in that bag you gave me! It's an old 200+ page manuscript!! Weird, huh?") Finally naturally, he passes the pages off as his own, and proceeds to set the world on fire. But darn the guilt...
Actually, darn the guilt, and darn the Old Man who calls him out (Jeremy Irons, redeeming what he can of this film by being the best thing in it... a character actually called The Old Man). Three guesses as to the identity of The Old Man, who gets his own extended tale (a color-graded WWII tragic romance, starring Ben Barnes as yet another writer who is involved with yet another impossibly attractive woman) in the middle of what is already a story-within-a-story. Meanwhile, TRON: LEGACY alum Olivia Wilde - a third
movie beauty who loves writers - comes on strong to Quaid's character, taking them back to his place for a u-turn into pseudo intellectualism - something about asking which is better, reality or fiction - in which the film almost calls itself on its own clichés, but stops just short of doing so.
One could consider THE WORDS the anti-MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (and not just because both use the ever-romanticized Paris as a key setting. Where Woody Allen's film is a delightful, focused breeze of nostalgia, THE WORDS is weighed down by it's own vague, self-serious aspirations. And with PARIS, its filmmaker (admittedly a long-persevering veteran in this game, as opposed to directorial newcomers Klugman and Sternthal) manages to say far more about the nature of the frustrated writer in this day and age than the overly structured WORDS can ever articulate.
Those of us who write about film are the obvious target audience for this; we love words. Particularly, words on film. If you are a devotee of quality film writing, go ahead and include yourself in this grouping. Unfortunately, we are also the bunch most likely to see through the facades of this one. When it comes to deceptive wordplay, we know all too well the tricks and slight of hand. Additionally, we've seen far superior films of a literary guise: There's Wes Anderson's THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, which is essentially an entire movie proudly sporting a book jacket, and let's not forget its influence in this department, Orson Welles' THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS.
Additionally, we've seen plenty of films about the mind of the writer - serious ones like John Huston's UNDER THE VOLCANO, and lighter entries, such as the afore mentioned MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. THE WORDS ambitiously attempts to both emulate a book and be about a book writer, which is logical enough. Films in the former category reflect a book-likeness partially through the attempted use of read prose as film narration. With a film like TENENBAUMS, you can close your eyes and imagine the opening words that Alec Baldwin is saying on a printed page. You believe that you are being read to. Not so with THE WORDS, which inadvertently turns the device around, resulting in bland film narration treated as read prose, but transparently used as narration. Over and over, there are passages with all the VH1 "Behind the Music" panache of lines like "He would have no idea what would happen next." Or, "They honeymooned (slight dramatic pause) in Paris." Close your eyes and imagine it on the printed page, then resist the urge to throw the book away. Of course, even when this sort of thing is done well in film, it is
ultimately done well as narration, something Welles knew and let us in on when he represented his AMBERSONS narrating disembodied voice with a studio boom microphone.
The trouble with THE WORDS is that it thinks it's a lot more profound than it is. Klugman and Sternthal obviously believe they have a lot to say, but they just can't seem to find... they just can't seem to find... Ugh! Darn the writer's block...
- Jim Tudor