For awhile, The Words is compelling and engrossing. A percolating little mystery about a struggling and failing author who finds an unpublished manuscript in a discarded old satchel bag and sells it as his own work. The premise is an interesting one; to wit, how far would someone go both morally, ethically, and emotionally to find success that is seemingly unattainable? That internal inventory of character motivations and desperation would make for one intriguing movie. And I am sure that someday soon we will find it. But no that movie is not The Words, because you see The Words is more preoccupied with playing around with that idea and then dissolving into (non-)suspenseful ridiculousness, payloading an ending that left fellow critics around me in a state of absolute bewilderment and aggravation.
Opening with best-selling author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) giving a public reading of his new book, “The Words”, we learn the story of Rory and Dora Jansen (Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana), a young couple who are attempting to make a go of it in New York City where Rory hopes to realize his dreams of becoming a successful writer and author. Times are tough for the couple as Rory is not getting published and Rory’s father (J.K. Simmons) is tired of footing the expenditures for Rory’s pursuits. Together for years, Rory and Dora finally decide to get married on a whim and travel to Paris for a honeymoon (paid for by Dad, I presume…), where a thrift shop purchase of that satchel bag changes the Jansens’ lives forever.
As Hammond narrates, or I suppose reads to us from his novel, we see that Rory decides to use the satchel bag one particular morning and via a hidden pocket, he unearths the most remarkable book he has ever read. He stews on it. He loses sleep over it. And in behaviors that he struggles to explain to himself and others, he transcribes every last word of the book. When Dora sees it saved on their laptop, she reads it, is moved to tears, and commends Rory for finally creating his masterpiece. Rory, staying silent on the origins of the story, pitches the book to the publishing company he works at and a deal is struck. The book becomes a smash. Rory and Dora have the fame and wealth they have sought for so long. But after receiving an award, an old man (Jeremy Irons) confronts Rory in Central Park, proving to Rory that he is, in fact, the true author of Rory’s masterpiece.
The Words does not lack for ambition and frankly, I love the premise. With so much potential grist for the mill here to be explored and considered, it is an absolute disappointment that first-time directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal have baked and seasoned their second collaborative screenplay (TRON: Legacy being the first), far too much and as a result, have crafted a unsavory mess of a film.
The Words does look terrific as Klugman and Sternthal receive a lift from Antonio Calvache’s meticulous lensing in both present day moments and flashbacks, which exist amongst other flashbacks. And immediately we find the heart of the problem. This is essentially a triptych film and without giving away any of the twists and turns, traveling in and around time with these Words becomes a convoluted disaster.
Subplots come and go with no resolution or actual point. Characters are introduced than essentially abandoned or never fleshed out, with the worst offender being Olivia Wilde’s mysterious Daniella, who has a keen interest in Clay Hammond’s reading. While the film hits some strides when The Old Man is providing Rory with first-hand knowledge of what experiences led to him writing his book, defined beautifully by near-silent performances from Ben Barnes and Nora Arnezeder, they can only do so much. Even their moving and vivid vignettes end up being sacrificed for more spoonfed explanations by The Old Man. After that initial discussion in Central Park, Rory is baffled and unsure of what to do, and honestly, so are we.
Later, after deciding to come clean, Rory confronts The Old Man and The Old Man, after some grunting and grumbling, resumes a laborious continuation of his past. So, I mean, was this not in the book Rory plagiarized? I mean, I get The Old Man wanting to give Rory the What For on Rory’s thievery, but how much does he need to say out loud? Rory loved the book and clearly understood enough of the emotional arc to successfully sell and market the book, right? In this second encounter, Klugman and Sternthal effectively kill off the effectiveness that Jeremy Irons brings to his character by making us sit through a second story time with The Old Man. Why The Old Man would again engage Rory with this information after laying him bare and essentially emasculating him in their earlier confrontation in Central Park is unrealistic and headache-inducing.
And he is officially named The Old Man.
The Words squanders all potential with incessant ramblings and a disingenuous and flat out goofy final chapter. And while the film is still deeply flawed and completely forgettable. it does contain a perfect ending point. Without timestamps, I would say that if The Words ended where I wanted it to, the film would clock in at approximately 80-82 minutes or so. Clearly this must not have been what CBS Films higher-ups wanted, so we get this acknowledged alternate ending. And to quote a fellow friend and critic, “How did they watch this ending and not know how terrible this was?” I don’t know, Tim. I really don’t know.
I don’t know much, but I do know that for a singular twist, or a series of “Oh, I see…” moments to work, you must simply do more than toss in a surprise for the sake of surprising viewers. The Words concludes with the cinematic equivalent of someone slapping you in the face…twice. Or more to the point, The Words causes a big distraction and when you pursue that distraction, it steals your wallet. Your purse. Your time. Your sanity. Oh, this movie.