Bradley Cooper has really got to stop doing bad things for the sake of writing.
Just last year, the exuberantly likable actor journeyed into the world of Limitless – a film about an author who, in the name of writer’s block, takes a magical medicine that gives him superhuman mental abilities. Naturally, the stuff was off-the-market illegal, and he got into a heap of trouble. But that’s okay because the main character always makes it no matter how awful they are (sorry, I didn’t like Limitless very much).
In The Words, Cooper plays another troubled writer given another unique-yet-unethical opportunity on which to form his career. Cooper’s Rory Jansen has no trouble with getting the words on paper. It’s the publishing part that’s giving him grief. There’s no market for his writing, which leads to, well, no cash flow (a visit to dad’s office ending with a signed check isn’t out of the ordinary).
After he shotgun weds “the love of his life” (Zoe Saldana), a honeymoon trip to Paris leads to the discovery of a manuscript tucked away in a well-worn briefcase. The manuscript, of course, is an impeccably worded masterpiece that, if published, would lead to instant success. Jansen needs success. Steal the words of a nameless author without any known consequences to receive the dream career of a lifetime? Why not?
As the story goes, Jeremy Irons’ “The Old Man” (no name, I believe) – the writer of the book that led to Jansen’s insta-fame – comes to New York with a poignant story to tell the thieving wordsmith (told in flashbacks starring Ben Barnes as “The Young Man” – creative, right?).
But wait, there’s more! Jansen’s story is also being told through the words of Dennis Quaid’s clearly famous writer Clay Hammond at one of those ‘Evening with…’ shindigs. Olivia Wilde is thrown in as a grad student with a keen interest in Hammond’s work.
With The Words, first-time writer/directors Lee Sternthal & Brian Klugman have forged an excessively talky melodrama that just might have taken its own artistic ambitions a wee bit too seriously.
Like one of those paperback books your grandmother brings to the beach to read, The Words is a show-and-tell presentation of feelings instead of action – a film where what the characters think is far more important to the story than what they actually do.
Cooper’s Jansen is not a rehash of the scumbag from Limitless (thankfully). Instead, he’s the typical troubled writer plagued with a seemingly flawless chance of success. He’s almost rather tragic – a good-but-covetous man who wants everything he’s dreamed of. Cooper plays the part well, but the writers sell the character short. He does hold a sense of honest guilt for what he’s done, but we never get closure for his arc (that ending…). Saldana does her job, but the writers don’t give her much to do outside of playing Jansen’s wife. She’s absent of a personality, which I find to be a mark of laziness against the scripters.
Irons’ “Old Man” got most of my sympathy (the flashbacks show he hasn’t exactly drawn the lucky number), and it’s easy to tell that Sternthal and Klugman far preferred telling his story over Jansen’s. Irons, as usual, knocks the role out of the park, but it’s unfair that the rest of the film couldn’t top his demanding bite (again, thought Cooper was great, too).
The film becomes problematic with Quaid and Wilde’s inclusions. Everything featured in their section of the story just felt busy and emotionally vacant. Quaid’s merely the glorified narrator to a story that he wrote, and Wilde is simply a stand-in “girl character” used to give Quaid’s character enough content to have his own arc.
Everything with Jansen and the Old Man actually piqued my interest in an “I want to see what happens” sort of way, but by trying to make their movie more layered, the new filmmakers failed to finish what they started. Overcomplicating the events of your film doesn’t make it smarter – just harder to connect with.
The visual style embraces the lingering character shot far too often, creating a moody atmosphere that works more than it doesn’t. When the mood isn’t appropriate, though, expect a little cheese. The dialogue can also be a little silly/wordy.
Sternthal and Klugman had every desire in the world to make The Words look and feel artistic, but in regard to telling a coherent story, I’m afraid that the duo had me going until the ending. Man, did they hit and miss with the finale – a failed “gotcha” moment that amounts to nothing more than a raised eyebrow. I won’t spoil it here, but let’s just say it’s a major reason for the film’s problems throughout. The conclusion fails to honor the buildup.
I really do believe that Sternthal and Klugman are proud of their work here. It’s a very confident piece of puzzling product that never leads to boredom – a fluid story that kept me guessing. But the, I suppose, unavoidable disappointment toward the end of the third act leaves this package unwrapped and exposed.
I’m in the middle on The Words. We’re given solid performances heightened by a fairly well-told story dampened by the filmmaker’s aim to make their film more serious/complex than it had to be. This is pulp, not art. Take it as such, and you’ll have a far better time appreciating the good that’s here.