Film Review: The Words

Multi-layered drama about a literary masterpiece and its dubious authorship is well-crafted but hardly as deep as it pretends to be.

For a movie fixated on intellectual prowess and literary achievement, The Words is decidedly middlebrow. Debuting directors and co-writers Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal attempt an ambitious tri-level narrative of stories within stories within stories and deliver a polished, good-looking production, but the overall vibe is more Nicholas Sparks than Ernest Hemingway, whose own loss of a manuscript inspired the premise here.

The framing device is a reading by successful author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) of sections from his new novel, The Words. Hammond’s main protagonist is Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), himself a struggling, insecure writer whose latest effort is rejected as too “interior” and “subtle.” While honeymooning in Paris with his more financially successful new wife, Dora (Zoë Saldana), Rory spies a weathered attaché case which his bride promptly buys as a present. That satchel is the proverbial gift that keeps on giving; tucked away inside is an old manuscript which turns out to be a mesmerizing read. Confronted with the kind of masterful prose he knows he could never conjure, Rory impulsively re-types the entire document over the course of one feverish night. Dora finds the novel in her husband’s computer, reads it, and gushes that, yes, he truly is the artist he always hoped to be. Unable to confess the truth, Rory submits the manuscript to the head man at the literary agency where he works, and before you can say “James Frey,” he is a best-selling, award-winning sensation.

Rory’s dream life is shattered, however, when he encounters a grizzled old man on a park bench, played by a mischievous Jeremy Irons with excess wattle applied to his neck. Sure enough, the unnamed interloper is none other than the real author of the manuscript, who proceeds to tell Rory the story of the idyllic Paris romance and tragic events that inspired him to write it, how his masterwork was lost, and how that loss impacted his life. (Ben Barnes plays the young Irons in a color-saturated Montreal filling in for Paris.)

Oh, and let’s not forget that framing story, as the self-regarding Hammond is courted by a young grad student (Olivia Wilde) who is determined to know more about her hero’s new novel and perhaps learn whether Hammond is revealing his own life within its pages.

Stylishly shot by Antonio Calvache, The Words has a certain seductive unpeeling of layers, but ultimately everything is on the surface here. The Paris scenes, supposedly the core of a monumental piece of fiction, feel stagy and trite, and the camera races past the words of the manuscript, conspiring with the filmmakers’ stratagem that we must accept its greatness on faith. No doubt the fiction we witness could be a best-seller along the lines of The Notebook or Dear John, but a landmark prize-winner? Not unless Oprah is on the jury.

Hangover leading man Cooper is perhaps unintentionally convincing as a man who doesn’t have the depth to be a great writer, but he keeps Rory sympathetic and his foolhardy decision relatable. Saldana’s role as supportive spouse is nothing much, but at least she and Cooper display some steamy chemistry. Stealing the film outright is Irons, whose sly baiting of Rory and flashes of righteous anger and regret elevate the drama whenever he’s onscreen. Like the anonymous savant he portrays, Irons is the real thing.