“The Words” tries to meticulously paint a picture with a broad brush, thus smearing the details and creating a different piece than perhaps intended.
It’s a film that spends too much time exclaiming that there’s a thin line between truth and fiction instead of actually showing us. But that doesn’t completely diminish “The Words” from being an enjoyable two hours. The film has a genuine rush to it; an effective triptych of a story within a story within a story that works hard to keep its head above water.
It opens with Dennis Quaid as Clay Hammond, a celebrated author reading a passage from his latest book “The Words.” We are then transported into Hammond’s contemporary story and follow mediocre and struggling writer Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) in the publishing playground of New York City. Unable to get his first novel published, Rory falls into a depression until he finds a masterpiece of a manuscript hidden in an old leather folio that his wife (Zoe Saldana) bought him in a Parisian antique store. Rory makes the difficult choice and submits the anonymous manuscript as his own work and instantly shoots to global fame. All is well until an old man (Jeremy Irons) shows up claiming Rory stole his story.
We then flash back to story number three, a clichéd and sepia toned World War II romance as Irons relays his tragic history writing the manuscript that Rory plagiarized.
The story within a story device certainly keeps the film moving and writer-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal do a nimble balancing act at keeping the entire film from falling apart. On the surface, the three stories probe the idea of responsibility and the tragic price of success, but “The Words” is too literal a film, leaving little room for the audience to question or use their imagination, which is a shame since Klugman and Sternthal have created a wonderful avenue from which to present many alternative explanations and theories, which they disappointingly avoid.
“The Words” entertainingly builds a well-structured and polished Jenga set of mystery and suspense but unfortunately feels trivial by film’s end. There’s so much anticipation for the set to collapse that it is disappointing when it never does.
“The Words” follows a similar structure to “The Hours,” like a kid looking up to an older brother for guidance. While “The Words” uses a similar structure to “The Hours,” it is missing all the depth, style and genuine emotion of the latter which nicely tied it together. Even the music has a similar Phillip Glass approach, using repetitive and cyclical music to take us further down the rabbit hole.
“The Words” is populated by a great ensemble cast. Irons, despite noticeably bad makeup, is a hoot as the emotionally damaged old man. This isn’t close to being one of his best performances, but listening to him tell the story of his character’s youth in Paris is worth the price of admission. Olivia Wilde, Ben Barnes, Michael McKean, J.K. Simmons, Ron Rifkin and Zoe Saldana round out the talented supporting cast.
“The Words” is not a bad film, not by a long shot; it is a great idea that has been averagely executed.