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Review: The Words (2012)

The Words (2012)

Directed by: Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal

Premise: A struggling writer (Bradley Cooper) discovers an old book manuscript and publishes it as his own work. When the novel becomes a success he is confronted by the original writer (Jeremy Irons).

What Works: The Words is a film in which the whole is less than the sum of its parts but on a scene-by-scene level there is some very good stuff in it. Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Irons are very impressive, with Cooper giving one of his better performances. The story of Cooper’s character is written intelligently and does not just focus on the struggles of an aspiring writer but also on the artist’s pursuit of meaning and relevance and the first half of the film has some powerful scenes. The Words is also very well shot, using blocking and lighting very well and the film uses subtle shifts in the image quality between the various temporal periods in which the story takes place. Marcelo Zarvos provides the music and it is an emotional if slightly over-bearing score. 

What Doesn’t: The Words is the kind of movie straining for grandiosity and the picture suffers because of its filmmaker’s hubris. The film is a multi-frame narrative, which is to say that it is a story, within a story, within a story and in this case it goes one frame too far. The outermost narrative, in which Dennis Quaid plays the writer of the inner-stories and Olivia Wilde plays a graduate student who listens to him, is entirely unnecessary. These scenes book-end the film in an attempt to grasp some vague but remarkable truth about the potentials and limitations of storytelling. The problem is that there is not enough substance in this outer narrative for it to accomplish what it is supposed to do and the filmmakers needed to either expand this story from a prologue and a coda and into a full-fledged plot with its own dramatic structure or dump it altogether. The filmmakers of The Words split the difference and the movie ends up with the worst of both options. The scenes of Quaid and Wilde open The Words to broader possibilities but because this subplot is unfinished these scenes are distracting and they dilute the potency of the inner-narratives. When viewers sit down to watch a movie they suspend their disbelief for the sake of enjoying the film but in stories like The Words the viewer is constantly reminded that this is just a story, which constantly undermines the integrity of the film and makes it hard to stay engaged. The outer narrative also negatively impacts the film because it redirects the viewer’s attention and sends the inner narrative awry just when it is getting interesting. Most viewers will be able to predict where the film is going from the outset; any story that opens with the protagonist telling a lie is inevitably moving toward the moment in which that lie is exposed but when Bradley Cooper’s character is confronted by the original author the filmmakers of The Words do not seem to know where to go. This ought to be the most interesting part of the story, since it is the choices that people make after they are exposed that defines their character. But the filmmakers sell the story short and cover the fallout in broad strokes. This is a shame since up to that point the story of Cooper’s character is a compelling one and it makes the Quaid-Wilde storyline appear as if it were less of an attempt at depth and more of a contrivance by the screenwriters to squirrel themselves out of a narrative corner.

Bottom Line: The filmmakers behind The Words want their film to be about more than dishonesty but it falls short of their ambitions and in the process they manage to screw up the basics of their story. Cinematically it is well made and it has a few good performances but the film has too much that is fundamentally wrong with it. 

Episode: #405 (September 16, 2012)