Note: This review contains spoilers.
For much of its runtime, The Words plays like the cinematic equivalent of the notice every college syllabus contains about plagiarism. The one that says copying someone else’s work is an unspeakably wicked crime, one that should never be performed under any circumstances and will irreparably shatter one’s career, life, and mental health. Even if the point is a fair one, the film, like the syllabus message, relates this concept with such staggering ineptitude, such dreadfully poor writing and overblown, arrogant, repellently self-important melodrama, that one finds oneself thinking plagiarized content, of any sort, would undoubtedly be more compelling than this wretched material one has been handed.
Or to put it in less figurative terms: The Words is an absolutely terrible movie from top to bottom. Writers/directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal have penned one of the single most abysmal, incompetent screenplays I have ever encountered, and though their impossibly talented cast does what they can with the material, there’s no rising above what garbage they have to work with.
Strap yourself in kids, because this is going to be a long one…
The Words tells the story of Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), a struggling writer trying to get his first book published. This leads to the film’s first obvious problem: its depiction of ‘writing’ feels entirely empty and inaccurate from start to finish. To be fair, writing is my career, and I am therefore pickier about how movies portray writers than most viewers. But even so, Klugman and Sternthal’s vision of ‘writing’ is spectacularly clichéd, based entirely around worn out character tics like staring intently at a computer screen, typing with ferocious passion, or ignoring friends and loved ones to get that last sentence out.
It rings hollow, but I can understand the difficulties in visually depicting a literary, internal occupation. What I cannot understand is how after throwing so many clichés at the wall, Klugman and Sternthal refuse to show us even a sentence of Rory’s work. We need something, a turn of phrase, a clever paragraph, or even a pitch for the story he is apparently so invested in. We need some small piece of evidence to demonstrate Rory’s apparently considerable talent, or the clichés become obvious attempts to cover up failings in characterization.
But no, we never do get a sense of how Rory writes, and it is therefore tough to take him seriously as a novelist. But take him seriously is what we are asked to do, as Rory’s book is rejected by publisher after publisher, and Rory grows increasingly disillusioned and frustrated with his bad luck. Not once does he consider self-publishing, which is incredibly simple in our technologically advanced world, nor does he think to start a blog or self-promote his work online. You know, all those modern techniques every single writer of his age would have thoroughly ingrained in their mind, techniques that would, for a talented writer, undoubtedly help kickstart a struggling career. Apparently The Words exists in a parallel universe where sending one’s manuscript off to publishing houses through snail-mail is still the most viable way to get recognized.
But I digress. The point is that by the time Rory becomes desperate enough to make a dangerous, life-altering decision, the audience is already lost in character inconsistencies and illogical plotting. But the film must soldier on, so Rory turns to an old, beat-up manuscript he found in an antique briefcase in Paris. The manuscript is beautiful, a masterful work of art that would propel the writer to immediate stardom. Or so we’re told. Again, Klugman and Sternthal are better at telling than showing.
Rory decides to pass the manuscript off as his own, retyping it and bringing it to the publishing house he works for. They love it, and Rory becomes an overnight celebrity, a critical darling and award winner who is the sensation of the literary world.
Again, I find a few troubling logical inconsistencies. Writing is not an anonymous medium, even if one strips away the author’s name, and I find it very hard to believe Rory could pass off anyone else’s work as his own. Good writers have distinctive voices. You can tell them apart even if you know nothing about them. Yet many people in Rory’s life – including his wife (Zoë Saldana) – just accept at face value that Rory had an authorial style transplant overnight. That makes absolutely no sense. Especially considering that we come to learn that Rory’s plagiarized novel is set in wartime Paris and tells a very personal story about a family dealing with the death of their child. Even if one could accept Rory’s stylistic overhaul, wouldn’t they question where he found inspiration for such dark, period-specific material? And if Rory ever wants to capitalize on his success and publish a book of his own, written in his own unique voice, how would he be able to do so without raising eyebrows? At that point, wouldn’t every single reader figure out that Rory is up to something?
Again, I must digress. Logical exercises shall get us nowhere with The Words.
Once Rory has achieved success, he is approached by an old man (Jeremy Irons, doing truly excellent work in spite of the script) who claims to have written the book. The man wishes to tell Rory his story, and so we launch into a forty-minute extended flashback explaining who this man is, why he was inspired to write the book, and how he lost the manuscript and ruined his entire life in the process.
If it sounds like an odd choice to splice a forty-minute flashback into the middle of an ongoing narrative, that’s because it is an odd – not to mention stupid – thing to do. But The Words is structurally defunct from beginning to end. The film actually exists in three layers of ‘reality,’ a bit like Inception but without the quality. When the film opens, Dennis Quaid appears to be the central figure, a successful author performing a public reading of his latest novel. Bradley Cooper’s story is the content of that public reading, and Quaid narrates the proceedings.
Fair enough. Once Irons enters the picture, though, it becomes clear Klugman and Sternthal have no clear sense of how to implement multiple layers of narration. So they pull back out to Quaid, who finishes “Part 1” of his reading, and spend ten minutes on Quaid chatting up a perky young woman played by Olivia Wilde. Her only discernable personality trait is sexual attraction to this sixty-year-old man, and Quaid is still an opaque and insignificant figure, so it feels like nothing more than a random, lengthily interlude, possibly spliced in from a bad Lifetime TV movie to pad for time.
More importantly, it just feels odd to spend a large chunk of time establishing one narrative and set of characters, only to jump out of that story and follow an entirely different thread. It automatically deprioritizes the story we have invested in, causing immediate frustration and unwanted disorientation. I’m all for playing with narrative form, but only if there’s a clear reason to do so, and while Quaid’s role will be expanded upon later, it never once feels like a necessary or organic part of the larger narrative tapestry.
But if spending ten minutes watching the narrator flirt with a woman half his age seems like an ill-advised narrative decision, it does not compare to the awkwardness of the second act, where Quaid resumes his story and narrates Bradley Cooper listening to Jeremy Irons narrate another new, lengthily tale. This is the forty-minute flashback I spoke of earlier, and while Irons’ account is technically relevant to the plot, the structure and implementation is just dreadful. It plays like a standalone short-film plucked in the middle of the larger story, an interruption so long and winding that it slowly erodes one’s memory of Cooper’s character and arc. It no longer feels like we are watching a movie. Instead, it seems we have seen three short films: One about a whiny plagiarist, one about a horny old man, and one about familial tragedy in WWII Paris. Yes, they are technically connected to one another, but structuring it all in massive, standalone chunks is asinine, distracting, and unnecessary.
The next act feels like another film unto itself. It cuts back-and-forth more rapidly between Cooper’s story and Quaid’s, as Klugman and Sternthal attempt to thematically connect the two. They fail miserably. Cooper’s story runs around in circles for a little while before hitting an anticlimactic dead end, while Quaid and Wilde continue preparing for coitus by talking literature.
This section also contains what may be the single worst line of dialogue I have heard in ten years of reviewing movies. It comes when Wilde tries coaxing the rest of the story out of a reluctant Quaid, and Klugman and Sternthal realize that they have failed to define Wilde’s character in any way, shape, or form. So far, she has only been ‘the pretty girl,’ and if she remains nothing more than ‘the pretty girl,’ she has no reason to be interested in Quaid’s story. So Klugman and Sternthal need to perform some on-the-fly character development, and they do so in the most ham-handed, blunt, poorly written, illogical, inconsistent, obliviously ridiculous sentence any actor shall ever be made to say:
“I’m young, spoiled, impetuous and American. Humor me.”
Oh. My. God. That sentence is a veritably symphony of awful, a cacophonous din of stupidity and carelessness, a headache inducing slice of criminally negligent exposition. I cannot even fathom how a sane human being looked at that collection of words and said “yes, this is the phrase we want our talented actress to say.” I imagine the scripting conversation must have gone something like this:
Writer 1: Hey, we need a reason why Wilde would convince Quaid to finish his story.
Writer 2: Damn! Hadn’t thought of that…I keep forgetting characters need discernable motivations!
Writer 1: I know! It’s such a pain. But we don’t know anything about Wilde’s character yet! We still have her written in the script as “Pretty Girl A.”
Writer 2: But that’s the only way we know how to write women!
Writer 1: Pesky opposite sex, making us write outside our comfort zones…
Writer 2: C’mon, don’t lose hope, we can move past this! Look, what if we give Wilde a couple of character traits here, just so we can say there’s a reason she would want to hear the rest of this story.
Writer 1: Hmm…that might work! Will we have to go back and incorporate these character traits into other scenes, though?
Writer 2: Oh God no! Why would we ever do something silly like that? Revision is such a pain in the ass! I don’t know why anyone ever tries it!
Writer 1: I agree! So we’ll just have to define her really quickly in this one exchange. Should she have a flashback to her childhood, or a speech about why she loves literature, or –
Writer 2: No, no, no, we don’t have the time for that! It’s almost our lunch break!
Writer 1: Ah, yes, well, we need to do this fast. One sentence, then?
Writer 2: Yes, one sentence should do just fine. Maybe if we just throw some adjectives together…what words would you use to describe Wilde?
Writer 1: ‘Feminine?’
Writer 2: No, no, that’s too obvious. Something more insightful.
Writer 1: ‘Pretty?’
Writer 2: No, we’re trying to hide the fact we haven’t bothered to define her character past physical attractiveness so far.
Writer 1: Hmm….what about…‘young?’
Writer 2: By jove, you’ve got it! ‘Young!’ That’s brilliant! She IS young! That explains so much about who she is!
Writer 1: Alright, what other character traits do we have?
Writer 2: None. That’s why we’re doing this.
Writer 1: Ah, yes. Well, should we just pull some out of thin air then?
Writer 2: I think so. What about “spoiled?”
Writer 1: Has she done anything that suggests she’s spoiled?
Writer 2: No, but we’re on the clock, so Wilde is spoiled now. That’s that. Now, what other traits could we make up?
Writer 1: Well, the ‘word of the day’ app on my phone had an interesting pick today. Let me see…‘impetuous.’ Do you know what that means?
Writer 2: No. But it sounds impressive. Let’s use it.
Writer 1: Do you want to look it up and see if it fits any of her other characteristics before we write it down?
Writer 2: No, I want to finish this and go to lunch. She’s ‘impleborous.’
Writer 1: ‘Impetuous.’
Writer 2: Gesundheit. Now, we have ‘young,’ ‘spoiled,’ and ‘imbrebrobrus.’ I think we need one more. Damn…this is tricky. Do we know anything else about her at all?
Writer 1: Well, she’s a woman…she’s young…she’s pretty…um…um….um…she’s American, I guess.
Writer 2: American! That’s GENIUS!!!! We have it!
Writer 1: What? Are you sure? That’s a nationality, not a personality trait.
Writer 2: I don’t care! It fits.
Writer 1: So would ‘blue polka-dot rhino enthusiast.’ It doesn’t mean it describes who she is.
Writer 2: If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you suddenly care about quality. You’re starting to annoy me.
Writer 1: I’m sorry…it’s fine, never mind.
Writer 2: Alright, so the line is “I’m young, spoiled, impetuous, and American.” Brilliant! That will definitely convince Quaid to tell her the story!
Writer 1: I – but – I … good enough.
Writer 2: Exactly. Now, let’s go do some shots and brainstorm the ending.
Writer 1: Ah, damn, I forgot we have to write one of those…
Seriously…the line is that bad. It will haunt my dreams forever.
But speaking of the film’s nonexistent ending, the wretched conclusion to The Words can only be described as Klugman and Sternthal’s imitation of a bad M. Night Shyamalan twist. We are essentially told that everything we have seen up to now is indeed fake, that Cooper’s moral ruminations over the dangers of plagiarism were irrelevant and Irons’ forty-minute flashback was all for naught. This is indeed Quaid’s story, and he made it all up, apparently to help move past the pain of his story’s one truthful element: The wife.
Huh? Confused yet? I sure was. As the concluding clip-package informs us, Zoë Saldana was really the film’s most important figure, because she actually existed, and Quaid is torn up over losing her. Or something like that. The movie ends before any of this becomes clear. In any case, revealing Saldana’s character as the thematic key to the movie is such a silly decision that it honestly made me chuckle. For the entirety of the film, she is an insignificant and underdeveloped character. Klugman and Sternthal only view women as objects of affection, simple forces of sexual prowess, and Saldana is treated no differently. In every scene she appears in, she walks on-screen, starts kissing Cooper, gives him some words of encouragement, and usually makes sexual advances. She’s not a character. She’s a stereotype, and turning her into the film’s central thematic entity is the definition of a cop-out.
Then again, the whole ending is nothing but evasion. It plays like a last-minute rush job, a desperate attempt to wrap things up before deadline, logic and audience satisfaction be damned. I have no issue with ambiguous or interpretive endings, but The Words has no ending at all. The multiple stories come to a head, Klugman and Sternthal see no clear way to wrap them all up, and so they shoot off in a completely different direction before quickly cutting to black, hoping the rapid dramatic shifts will work as a narrative sleight of hand.
Needless to say, these people are atrocious magicians, and the finale is pathetic. Not that I minded seeing the film cut short. I would have been happy to see the projector explode into flames if it meant I did not have to watch another frame of this wretched monstrosity.
The Words is horrible. It is one of the most inept cinematic disasters I have seen this year. In nearly 3000 words, I have not even touched upon the grossly manipulative musical score, or the tepid, uninspired direction, or the smug tone pervading each and every scene, or any of a dozen other issues I noticed while suffering through this poor excuse for a film. My only positive notes go to the cast members, each of whom do strong work despite the limitations. But these thespians deserve better, and so do we. The Words is unworthy of humanity’s attention.