Featuring: Bradley Cooper, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde, Zoë Saldana, Ben Barnes, Nora Arnezeder, Jeremy Irons
Directors: Brian Klugman, Lee Sternthal
Writers: Brian Klugman, Lee Sternthal
Australian release date: Thursday, October 11
[Synopsis paraphrased from The Words website]
When young writer Rory Jansen achieves his dream of publishing the next great American novel there’s only one catch – he didn’t write it. As the past comes back to haunt him and his literary star continues to rise, Jansen is forced to confront the steep price that must be paid for stealing another man’s work and for placing ambition and success above all else.
This “literary thriller” had me hanging on the edge of my seat wondering how the hell the filmmakers could wrap up the sorry plots, and whether they could annoy me even more with trite dialogue, glossy Hollywood actors, and overdramatised direction. Sadly, the answers were 1. they couldn’t, and 2. they could.
The Words, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.
One: There are some serious ideas somewhere in this story about who owns the raw material of fiction or fictionalised autobiography; intellectual property; the creative process; sense of self; morals; and consequences. The structure and style of The Words does not allow for nuanced examination of any of these issues.
Two: the structure of this film. It’s a story within a story within a story. The outermost layer is that of the successful writer Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), who is reading from his novel at an event. The next layer is his novel, which is about a writer, Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), who struggles to find his voice, and then, lo! happens upon a fully formed manuscript and has it published to national acclaim. The story at the centre is that manuscript, about a young GI (Ben Barnes) who returns to post-WWII Europe and marries his French sweetheart (Nora Arnezeder), finds his own voice as a writer, and experiences a tragedy. We hear two voice-over narrators in the laboured telling of these tales, Hammond and the GI, in what is surely show-and-tell overkill.
Three: the style. Handsome men, beautiful women – because it’s Hollywood, and we know struggling writers and their postgrad student wives, poorly educated young GIs and French waitresses are always lissom, lovely and gorgeously dressed. Passion is depicted by photogenic soft-porn clinches; rage by throwing household objects on the floor. (Seriously, did anyone ever do this before some scriptwriter or director decided it was a good external representation of frustration?)
Four: plot details. We are invited to infer that Hammond is a writer who appropriated someone else’s story and has suffered for it in a kind of metaphysical justice, but such consequences belong in the story of the writer who has actually done this. The Hammond layer is superfluous and his exchanges with a persistent groupie, at the event and afterwards, ludicrous.
Five: the dialogue. “How do you think this makes me feel?” asks Rory’s wife Dora (Zoe Saldana) when Rory is having a bit of a wakeup moment realising he doesn’t quite have the right creative lead in his pencil, and expresses the thought that nothing in his life is “right”. And “Did you ever stop to think what this would mean for us?” she asks when he finally confesses he’s nicked the manuscript that has brought him fame and fortune. This is the dialogue of soap opera.
Six: Bechdel test fail. And Dora, honey, to answer your question from Five, above, it should make you feel peripheral to the action, because in this film, that’s what all the female characters are. Twice, male characters approach female characters from behind while they – the female characters, need I explain – are engaging in domestic tasks, and embrace them. This action in real life would earn swift reprimand.
Seven: the pace. What pace?
Eight: the manufactured drama. When Jansen spills his guts to his publisher, the publisher goes into an explosive rant. It’s utter nonsense, as is the showdown scene between Jansen and the now-old writer of the manuscript (Jeremy Irons), and the ridiculous burial scene.
I could go on about the horrible acting of Dennis Quaid; the truly horrendous scene where Jansen gets another cheque from Daddy to bankroll his writing efforts (“This is the last one” says Dad in a remarkable display of tough love); the utter lack of logic in his eventually getting a job as a mail boy but somehow being able to afford a honeymoon in Paris (thanks, Dad?); and…and…that’s enough for now.
I nearly lost the will to live watching The Words, and thinking about it again is making my blood pressure rise. Is there anything praiseworthy? Hmm. The cinematography is good. Editing, sound, set decoration, etc, are all excellent too. Skilled creatives and technicians have been put to work in the service of a complete dog of a script. But that’s unfair: I like dogs.
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