Frequently described as “that movie where Bradley Cooper plagiarizes,” The Words is much more complicated than its core premise – as evidenced by the difficulty of marketing the film to potential viewers. The movie’s trailers present an odd mix of romance and thriller genres but the film is actually more of a contemplative character drama.
First time feature writer/directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal were responsible for the project from page to screen and the pair deliver a lot of interesting ideas, especially for moviegoers who love literary culture/genuinely enjoy reading and writing. However, with a big-name cast that includes Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Dennis Quaid, and Olivia Wilde, there are sure to be plenty of filmgoers who are drawn in by familiar faces only to be presented with a story that might rely too heavily on symbolism to be completely satisfying.
That isn’t to say that Klugman and Sternthal are new to big screen filmmaking – as writers they contributed to the TRON: Legacy story and Klugman has acted in numerous high-profile projects (Cloverfield, Mad Men, Castle). However, in ferrying their own creation from start to finish, the pair stumble over a very fine line between delivering one of the year’s more profound messages about life (as well as fiction) and downright drowning viewers in a mishmash of on-the-nose revelations and overly-subtle attempts at abstraction. It’s a worthy effort, especially for freshman filmmakers, but in its attempt to say something profound about the connection between real life and fiction as well as the ongoing pursuit of “truth” in literature, The Words, without question, will prove a bit too abstract for viewers who were expecting a more traditional action/reaction storyline.
Instead of the simple “Bradley Cooper plagiarizes” plot, The Words is actually a multilayered narrative that starts with bestselling author, Clay Hammond (Quaid) reading from his latest book “The Words” – about a struggling (but talented) young author, Rory Jansen (Cooper), who by chance discovers a remarkable piece of writing and chooses to pass the work off as his own. Now darling of the literary scene, Rory is thrust into the public spotlight – with no choice but to perpetuate his lie. Fame and commercial success make it easier for him to live his literary dream (and get his own stories published) but he’s kept awake at night by the fact that he’ll never be as talented as the writer he plagiarized. The insecurity comes full circle when he’s confronted by the unsung author and told the tale of how “the words” were bought into the world – causing Rory to not only question his decision to steal but also his core understanding of what it means to be a “truth teller.”
While the layered narrative successfully presents the film’s fundamental juxtapositions (fiction vs. reality as well as true love vs. love of truth), only two of the three threads manage to present engrossing onscreen drama. The Hammond layer, which frames the subsequent storylines and casts doubt on potential connections, is wrought with preachy postulations about being an author – as well as a bizarre set of scenes between the character and an inquisitive Columbia graduate student (Wilde). Any interesting chemistry between the two adept performers is overshadowed by a number of heavy-handed, albeit still enigmatic, “answers” about Hammond’s book and characters. It’s easy to understand the function of the Hammond plotline and, for the most part, it serves its purpose but it’s easily the most awkward and likely for some, confusing, element of the ensemble.
Fortunately, the Rory layer as well as The Young Man layer both deliver solid performances, rich character encounters, and even some striking visual compositions that enliven story beats with captivating cinematography. Rory’s arc, which successfully chronicles his transition from an idealistic would-be novelist that wants to be a celebrated author (with little to actually say) into a disillusioned celebrity confronted with actual “truth” is absorbing. Rory’s motivations are especially interesting, much more profound than simple fame/fortune, and Cooper manages to present a likable and relatable character – in spite of a despicable and cowardly decision. Dora (Saldana) is also a sharp motor for the narrative, helping to progress the storyline and serve as an able point of comparison for some of the larger thematic elements.
Despite a marketing focus on Rory and Dora, the story of The Young Man, played by Ben Barnes (The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian) is easily the most fascinating element of the film - since it pulls double duty: allowing viewers access to the actual origin of The Words as well as showcasing why Rory would be so affected by the story in the first place. Similarly, The Author (Jeremy Irons), who isn’t out for financial payback, adds a smart complexity to what would otherwise be a standard cause and effect film. Instead, The Words bucks the usual cliches and attempts to say something more intelligent about artists, inspiration, and truth – whether or not casual moviegoers will be able to fully appreciate the attempt, however, is hard to imagine.
The movie is overwrought insinuations about authors/the state of the literary world and, as mentioned, the final chapter strikes an awkward and off-putting balance between withholding and inundating viewers with information in an attempt to hammer home its biggest “lesson.” For anyone on board with the idea, and the literary theory behind it, the back and forth will help support the core message but viewers hoping for something more concrete will likely be left scratching their heads.
Despite an exposition-heavy outer layer, The Words delivers on two out of the three narrative threads that it presents and offers a somewhat thought-provoking and evocative meditation on truth – especially for anyone with an appreciation for literary writing. However, the film is non-traditional and moviegoers hoping for a fully contained drama thriller will likely be underwhelmed by the movie’s attempt at addressing larger philosophical questions. Not all of The Words are unique but the way they come together should provide a stirring experience for anyone fluent in nuanced literary drama.
If you’re still on the fence about The Words, check out the trailer below:
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The Words is Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and smoking. Now playing in theaters.