“The Words” marks Bradley Cooper’s second cinematic outing as a struggling writer—the first time was in the 2010 sci fi actioner “Limitless”—and the second time I’ve been unconvinced by his performance. Cooper is a fairly capable actor when he’s given the right role, such as in “The Hangover,” but in this movie I simply could not buy him as a struggling writer. He’s too slick, too cool; a performance like this requires depth and he doesn’t go deep enough. You never get the feeling he’s really struggling with his craft. There are scenes throughout where we see him “writing” or “having trouble writing” and I was very aware he was acting. Fortunately, Cooper isn’t the worst thing about “The Words,” a film that has a potentially interesting and thrilling premise, that’s almost completely undone by a shoddy storytelling device.
The film—written and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal--is a romantic drama with some mystery thrown in. Cooper and Zoe Saldana play Rory and Dora Jensen, a young happy married couple who move to NY City. Rory is an up and coming author who thinks he’s going to get the novel he’s been working on for a while published right away; but his agent says it isn’t marketable. Rory goes into a slump for a little while, he still writes, but he has to take a part time job and he’s having trouble coming up with something new. Then one day-- when he buys a leather pouch from a second hand store—to his surprise he finds an unfinished manuscript, that conveniently happens to be a masterpiece (this kind of stuff only happens in movies). So what does he do? He plagiarizes it. He retypes the entire manuscript word for word. It gets published and he wins some prestigious writing award. However, the original writer of the manuscript only referred to as “the old man” (Jeremy Irons) comes after him.
But wait, it gets more complicated than that, and that’s a serious problem. We find out early on that the Rory and Dora story is actually from a book within the movie called “The Words” written by a man named Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), who’s apparently reading large chunks of his book to what looks like an extremely patient audience at a college. Now that plot device is already gimmicky and needlessly complex, but it also means that we have to listen to Quaid’s bland tone of voice as he narrates every five minutes. And we actually get to see scenes of Quaid…up on the stage…reading the novel. Thrilling, right?
Klugman and Sternthal could have just made “The Words” about Rory and Dora and it would have been at least decent. Better yet they could have made it from the Old Man’s perspective, which might have made for a more exciting and endearing picture. Instead, what the filmmakers do is essentially reduce the substance of the Old Man character down to one, long, tedious scene where he sits Rory down on a park bench and tells him his whole life story; how he fought in World War 2, and met a French girl, and how all of that and more led to him writing the novel and losing it. It basically stops the movie dead. And keep in mind, this whole time Clay is reading this to an audience. Yes. He’s reading a book about a guy telling a story.
Cooper, Saldana, Irons (bless his heart) and the rest of the cast give it their all but in the end they are letdown immensely by the way the two writer/directors choose to tell their story. Cooper’s slickness and coolness can be put to better uses.
On a side note: judging by how lengthy the Rory and Dora segments are, Clay must have read about three quarters of his novel out loud for free. I wonder if anyone in the audience bought the book?