Rating: PG-13 (brief strong language, smoking)
Length: 97 minutes
Release Date: September 7, 2012
Directed by: Brian Klugman, Lee Sternthal
Stars: 4 out of 5
“The Words” is a story within a story within another story that begins with Dennis Quaid as Clay Hammond, who serves as the narrator for the film. Clay is reciting a passage at a book signing from his new book, “The Words,” which centers on Rory Jansen (played by the handsome Bradley Cooper), an aspiring novelist. Like so many writers before him, he struggles to find the right words to convey what is in his head. After many unsuccessful years of trying to make it as a novelist, he decides to give up and takes a job with a publisher.
Rory’s longtime girlfriend, Dora, (played by Zoe Saldana) is thrilled that he has decided to settle down into a “normal” life. They decide to get married and take a long honeymoon in Paris. While there, Rory does some of the things that American writers are supposed to do while in Paris, like drink coffee, visit antique shops and walk along the Champs-Elysees. In one store, he finds an antique satchel that catches his eye. Upon purchasing it, he finds an old, yellowed manuscript with a story that is one of those once-in-a-lifetime novels.
Despondent over the fact that he will never be able to write as well as the author of the manuscript, he takes it back to his hotel and copies it onto his laptop, ostensibly to feel what it would be like to be a real writer. Dora finds the typed-out story on his laptop and is overjoyed that her new husband has found his writing talent at last. Unable to disappoint her, Rory goes along with the story and soon becomes a famous, published author.
All seems to be going well for the plagiarist, until The Old Man (Jeremy Irons) realizes that his long-lost story has been published under someone else’s name. He decides that he needs to pay Rory a visit and tell him that he is the real author of the book. This sends Rory’s new life into a tailspin, one from which he may never be able to recover.
The film cuts between Rory’s story, the story in the novel and Clay’s book reading in New York City. At the book signing is Daniella (Olivia Wilde), who flirts with Clay while asking him pointed questions. Though the novel story and Clay’s story are good, the real focus is on Rory and his crisis of conscience regarding the Old Man.
Wilde’s character acts as something of a surrogate for the audience when she tries to delve deeper into Clay’s mind. The audience likely has a lot of the same questions that the piercing Daniella does, especially because the answers to these questions could very well reveal whether the story of Rory and Dora is real or fiction. It is hinted that Clay may know the couple and decided to tell their story. The fact that “The Words” may be blurring the line between fiction and reality is one of the many reasons why the film is so captivating.
Another reason it is captivating is the performances. It is rare for a drama to have stellar performances across the board, but that is definitely the case here. Saldana is her usual great self; you’ll only be left wishing she had a little more screen time. It should be no surprise that Irons turns in the best performance of all, which is not an easy distinction to make in a film filled with great acting. His world-weary Old Man may be physically jarring to look at, but you simply cannot take your eyes off of him. That is the mark of a true acting master.
The biggest surprise, though, is Cooper as Rory, who starts out as the protagonist and quickly becomes the antihero. Cooper is best known for his work in the “Hangover” films and action fare like “The A-Team.” He hasn’t had too many chances to show off his more dramatic chops, and when he has, it has usually been in a small role. Here, he nearly carries the film as the would-be writer who knows that what he did is wrong but doesn’t know how to stop the wheels he put into motion. After seeing this performance, it should be no surprise to see Cooper tackle more dramatic lead roles.
Equally surprising is the fact that codirectors/coscreenwriters Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal were best known before “The Words” for coming up with the concept for “Tron: Legacy.” How they went from a special effects-laden sci-fi film to the quiet, nuanced story of “The Words” is unknown. It shows a real range for storytelling that may lead to good places in the future for this dynamic duo.