The Words opened today and as I had high expectations for the film, I was disappointed. The film didn’t really open to grandly trumpeting favorable reviews by film critics eager to show off their skills and flourishes as much as it largely slithered into town quietly.
Speaking of towns – the locations in the film are supposed to be New York and wartime Paris. What we got instead were a couple of matte paintings and Montreal, Quebec, Canada was where they actually shot the film.
Okay, using some of Montreal’s back alleys and off-the-beaten-path side streets is understandable from a production cost perspective, but how ironic that a film about plagiarism and dishonesty is guilty of less than honest location settings.
Dennis Quaid as author Clay Hammond opens the film as a lauded author who has been awarded a grand literary prize. He’s been asked to read some passages from his latest book, The Words, to a packed auditorium. Only a few sentences in – we know that Hammond’s opus masterpiece is the story of a struggling writer. We segue from the auditorium, and Quaid’s dull reading, into the story of this writer, Rory Jansen. It is the old story within the story gambit and most of us have been down this way before, and we’ll go down this same way again and again within this film.
Ergo, we can label the structure of the film as multi-tiered. But back to what the story is about.
Jansen is played by Bradley Cooper, who earlier this year, in Limitless, also played a struggling writer. This time out, he doesn’t ingest magic pills, instead he finds a manuscript hidden within the secret folds of antique leather satchel that his wife Dora (Zoe Saldana) bought for him on their honeymoon in Paris.
Jansen has received a number of rejects from publishing houses. He’s even called in for an interview with a publisher, played by Ron Rifkin, who was wasted as this was his only scene, where he’s told that he’s new, and unknown, and that they wouldn’t know how to begin to market Jansen’s book – as Rifkin said - it’s too interior.
Jansen’s money is getting dangerously low, so Jansen goes to ask his father (J.K.Simmons) for a loan. As expected, Jansen gets both the loan, and a lecture as well as a fatherly hug, so the Jansen household stays afloat. But eventually, Jansen must put his dream on the side, and take a job. He goes to work in the mailroom of a publishing house. A good idea – as he’ll have an opportunity to buddy up and connect with some editors and others of influence in the publishing world.
Two years fly by, as easily as pages turning in a book. One day at home he looks into that unused leather satchel, and finds – a manuscript. Minutes later on-screen, he’s finished reading it, and surprise-surprise, he decides to copy the script onto his computer. Which takes a few days, or is it a few weeks? Anyway his wife happens upon his laptop, reads this ms and then is thrilled by it. Before Rory can tell his wife that he didn’t write it – she’s telling him how wonderful it is, and how thrilled she is to be married to man with such intelligence, and depth, and literary skills. She tells him to show it to someone at his job.
Long story short – the novel which is called The Window Tears is a howling success, and soon Rory Jansen will be reaping the financial windfalls, the adulation, the success, and awards. Top of the world as it were.
But remember, Rory Jansen is the fictional writer inside of Clay Hammond’s novel. So it is time to step out the novel written by Clay Hammond and return to Mr. Hammond himself. It is the intermission at his book reading and he’s chatted up by the very attractive Olivia Wilde, as the post-grad student Daniella. She’s attractive and he’s interested (he and his wife are separated) so as soon as we get interested in them, the script calls for us to leave Mr Hammond and Daniella and step back into the novel.
Rory Jansen now has the time to idle away a day in the park, where he is approached by an old man, whose character is called The Old Man. This isn’t just any Old Man – no, this is an old man who long ago married a French woman after World War II and lived in Paris.
Circumstances in his life were such that he began to write about his life in Paris, and after his manuscript was finished, then, his wife lost the manuscript by leaving the leather satchel with the ms in it on a train…yes the very one that Dora bought in that Paris antique store years and years later.
Haven’t we all heard the legend about this very thing (wife loses a manuscript) happening to a writer called Ernest Hemingway in 1922?
Of course as the Old Man told the story to Rory Jansen, there’s flash back to those idyllic days when the Old Man was the Young Man. So the Old Man narrates the tale and we see it – including a scene later on, after The Young Man had long since had his wife leave him AND HE NEVER SAW HER AGAIN – until, that day when he was riding on a train and he sees her on a station platform, where she’s waiting for her family.
Of course, that particular scene had been played in Dr. Zhivago when Yuri sees Lara from a bus.
Yes, so we cycle back from the Young Man, to the Old Man – and then comes the question – what will Rory Jansen do about it. He’s guilt stricken.
But Rory’s agent doesn’t want to hear about it – as he says - if you go public, you’ll ruin your life AND you’ll ruin mine.
Rory wants to take his name off the book. Rory wants to give the Old Man, played masterfully by Jeremy Irons, a ton of money. But the Old Man doesn’t much want the money, or even the credit -
Meanwhile, back in the present, in what passes for real life, Daniella wants to know what happens to the fictional Rory Jansen. We do too but we don’t get a chance to ask.
Clay Hammonds tell her and in doing so, he alludes to a possible scenario that distinctly blurs the lines between himself and his creation, Rory Jansen.
Okay – the film seems to be an endless cycle of stories inside of stories and still more stories. There are four writers in the film - The Young Man, The Old Man, Jansen, and Clay Hammond, and each of their stories is the story of what they wrote. So maybe you’re thinking it is kind of a puzzle. Only it isn’t puzzle, despite the fact that none of the stories are resolved.
There’s the legend of Hemingway script being lost by his wife, and to make sure we don’t miss the Hemingway reference – we are shown a copy of Hemingway’s 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises – a book about writers living in Paris – sitting on a shelf. I thought that was the cinematic equivalent of the screenwriters hitting the audience over the head, so we wouldn’t miss the reference.
Then there’s the reference to Boris Pasternak‘s 1957 novel, Doctor Zhivago when Yuri sees Lara. I’m not sure what purpose that had in this movie.
Maybe this was just the way that Directors and Screenplay Writers – Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal chose to tell everyone that there’s very little originality – anywhere. That all of us , and even themselves are all part of the endless cycle of plagiarism. And to hit the nail on the head one last time – don’t look for any changes any time soon.
I’ll rate the film at just three-point zero. We don’t care about any of these people and we get no answers to the questions the films asks. The photography and editing, and even the musical score were above average. All of the actors except Bradley Cooper did well. I just didn’t buy anything about Cooper’s Rory Jansen as none of his actions or motivations seemed real. I thought his character portrayal was the weakest in the whole film.
Overall, it was a good try, maybe too clever for its own good, or said another way – ‘too interior’. Either way, Bradley Cooper and his friends will not have a box-office best-seller with this one.