If there’s any doubt that the summer movie season is squarely in our rearview mirror, look no further than The Words, which moseys into theaters with all the intensity and excitement of a mid-afternoon nap.
It’s typical early fall fare, not at all as dramatic as the ‘Oscar bait’ we’ll get as the holidays approach, and nothing like the gonzo blockbusters that blew us through the back of the theater in June and July. In and of itself, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but The Words ends up tripping on itself a little too much to be memorable past this weekend… if even then.
Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) is a struggling writer, amassing a pile of rejection slips from publishing houses and finally coming to the realization that he just doesn’t have what it takes. Sure, he has the support of his girlfriend Dora (Zoe Saldana), and he squeaks by with the occasional loan from his dad (J.K. Simmons), but neither of those will get him on the bestseller list anytime soon.
When he trips on an old manuscript in an antique satchel, he is enamored. His intentions are earnest at first; he just re-types the words onto his own laptop, only so he can feel what it’s like to write well. But when Dora trips on it, she (thinking, as anyone would, that it’s his) convinces him that it’s the best thing she’s ever read, and that he must publish it.
Rory eventually throws his ethics out with the morning trash, and the novel (passed off as his own) becomes an international hit. And, yes, it comes to the attention of the old man (Jeremy Irons) who actually wrote it half a century earlier.
And this entire thing is narrated in flashback by another author, Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), who told Rory’s plagiaristic tale in a book of his own.
First-time directors Brian Klugman (nephew of Jack) and Lee Sternthal craft a generally interesting story-within-a-story-within-a-story that ramps up particularly when the old man confronts Rory with the truth. The old man’s life story (including how he came to write the book, only to have it misplaced) is captivating– a heart-wrenching, romantic tale that could almost stand on its own.
Likewise, Rory and Dora’s story works well, too. Without much to work with, Cooper and Saldana sell their relationship with chemistry and conviction. It’s not hard to get sucked into Rory’s world and to understand how he could let things spiral so far out of control.
It’s when Quaid’s subplot is highlighted that things go downhill. Working alongside Olivia Wilde (in a performance that, unnecessarily and unintentionally, may give you a minor case of the heebies), Quaid takes any of the intrigue from the main stories and kills it, culminating with a head-scratching finale that we’re supposed to be stunned by. Oops.
The script (by Klugman and Sternthal) has a premise that’s interesting enough, but it drags a little, confuses a little, and tries to do too much– when half as much would have been plenty. Fortunately the top-notch cast, including Irons in a superb performance, is able to keep The Words above water… but only barely.
My advice? Slip out to the lobby for some Twizzlers anytime Quaid (and, more importantly, Wilde) is on screen. A little self-editing can get you a pretty good movie.